Fulham’s FA Cup assignment at Manchester City ended in a predictable defeat, but there were enough encouraging signs from the contest with the Premier League champions to please Marco Silva. The Whites boss surely already knows that his defence will require significant strengthening and opting for such offensive tactics will be fraught with danger in the top flight, but there were times in a frenetic first half where the hosts were definitely discomforted. The main priority remains clinching a spot back amongst English football’s elite – and the quest to consolidate their strong position at the top of the Championship remains with Millwall’s visit to Craven Cottage tomorrow night.
Millwall might be in fifteenth place but Gary Rowett can at least point to recent improvements. After a dispiriting run of four straight defeats, the Lions have picked up four points from games against West Bromwich Albion and Preston North End – keeping consecutive clean sheets for good measure as well. Millwall have also demonstrated this season that they are capable of raising their game against the division’s top sides: they have lost only two of their meetings with the Championship’s top seven to date. They could consider themselves unfortunate to only draw with Queens Park Rangers, Bournemouth and Blackburn Rovers and have taken four points from West Brom.
They should be acutely aware of what to expect from Fulham, who outclassed them at the New Den in back in August and yet were clinging on for all three points once a freak goal from Benik Afobe had brought the hosts back into the contest. Rowett has dismissed the idea of sitting back against the league leaders – believing that to be a recipe for disaster – and wants his side to play higher up the pitch than they managed in the first fixture. Millwall certainly have the ability to pose Fulham problems. They have added the creativity of Luke Freeman, a deadline day signing, and with Oli Burke and Jed Wallace, likely to return to the starting line-up tomorrow night, also within the visiting ranks, Silva’s defence will certainly need to be on their guard.
Fulham’s frailties were ruthlessly exposed at Manchester City in what could be considered a worrying glimpse of what may await if they bounce back to the Premier League at the first time of asking. More concerning for Silva will probably be the way they allowed Blackpool to bounce back from the early concession of an Aleksandar Mitrovic goal a week earlier and go on to boss a contest they could easily have won. Rowett was open in expressing that Neil Critchley’s side displayed the blueprint of the sort of performance necessary to upset the applecart in SW6 – and Fulham will have to be both more clinical and defensively disciplined for the remainder of the season.
Silva’s team selection – after largely sticking with his regular line-up in the FA Cup – will be interesting. Marek Rodak should return in goal and Neco Williams will expect to continue deputising for Kenny Tete after a bruising baptism of fire against the best team in the land, but Antonee Robinson could return at left back after international duty. Both Tom Cairney and Jean Michael Seri, who came off the bench at the weekend, could come back into central midfield, which you would expect to be a decisive area in the heat of a London derby. Utilising the pair’s ability to retain possession will be pivotal in securing all three points.
The movement of Fulham’s front four will be vital in countering what is likely to be a three-man Millwall central defence. Mitrovic has looked occasionally isolated when heavily outnumbered as he leads the line, which is why the fluidity of Neeskens Kebano – enjoying his finest season in a Fulham shirt – and the intelligent Harry Wilson is so important. The dynamism of Fabio Carvalho was on full display in that tremendous first half against Manchester City (on another day he could quite easily have had a hat-trick) and you can see why the Whites were so keen to keep the teenager for the rest of their promotion push. Carvalho showed just what he could do in a virtuoso display against the Lions earlier in the season, so it will be intriguing to see how they try and shackle him this time around.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Rodak; Williams, A. Robinson, Adarabioyo, Ream; Seri, Cairney; Wilson, Kebano, Carvalho, Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Gazzaniga, Hector, Bryan, Reed, Onomah, Decordova-Reid, Muniz.