Fulham’s final pre-season friendly – and the test event for the revamped Riverside Stand – against Spanish visitors in Villarreal prompts plenty of questions. The first has to be, just how happy is Marco Silva? The Portuguese picked Craven Cottage over a number of possible destinations when he was out of work last summer, with his primary objective being to repair his reputation on these shores following accusations of disloyalty at Watford and a harsh sacking by Everton. Plenty of seasoned observers were surprised that Silva chose a Championship job when a host of highly-regarded foreign managers have fallen flat on their face in one of the world’s most demanding divisions but his boldness was vindicated by one of the most memorable campaigns in Fulham’s history: surging to the title with an attractive and adventurous approach arguably unmatched on the banks of the Thames since Jean Tigana’s similarly eye-catching arrival from overseas.
Having led Fulham back to the promised land in some style, Silva was adamant that the Whites couldn’t waste the summer transfer window if they wanted to establish themselves in the Premier League. He has recently communicated his displeasure at the pace of acquisitions and joins a long line of predecessors who have spoken out about Fulham’s recruitment process. The head coach was keen to upgrade a squad short on top flight talent or experience and identified a new goalkeeper and a couple of centre backs as a priority. None have arrived – and you couldn’t blame any Fulham follower for experiencing a sense of deja vu. Fingers are usually pointed towards Tony Khan, who remains in situ as director of football. Joining English football’s top table with just two under-21s as alternatives to Tosin Adarabioyo – not yet proven in the Premier League – and American veteran Tim Ream, who many would have been happy to pension off at the end of last season, seems risky. Not sorting out the spine of a newly-promoted side feels like a dereliction of duty giving the gulf between the second tier and the top flight, never mind that there’s less than a week before Liverpool, who looked ominously good going forward in the Community Shield yesterday and now can call upon Fabio Carvalho as well, come to SW6.
It would churlish not to recognise that Fulham have made some smart moves in other areas this summer. Kevin Mbabu, the most recent arrival, should start this afternoon and add pace and precision from right back to provide much-needed competition for the injury-plagued Kenny Tete. The summer-long saga that was Manor Solomon’s switch from Shahktar Donetsk is finally concluded, although nobody seems quite sure when the Israeli international can properly pull on the white shirt for the first time – owing to the confusion around FIFA’s emergency rules relating to Ukrainian-based foreign players. It could be that we don’t see Solomon until next weekend. Andreas Pereira will definitely get close to Aleksandar Mitrovic and has something to prove in the Premier League, but the most important addition is his compatriot Joao Palhinha. The 26 year-old defensive midfielder adds real ballast to the midfield as a holder, possibly alongside Harrison Reed. The Portuguese international picked Craven Cottage ahead of other destinations, largely due to Silva’s influence, and he should make the Whites far harder to play though. Palhinha is not short of a good pass, either – never mind a super shot – and most followers of Portuguese football agree that our initial £17m outlay is something of steal. We will see how swiftly he adapts to the physicality and pace of the English game.
Pre-season friendlies are known can’t be considered any indicator of what will when the serious stuff gets underway. It is even more complicated when today’s opponents take part in two games across the same weekend. A Villarreal squad won at Southampton yesterday, preserving an impressive unbeaten summer record for the underappreciated Unai Emery, who I felt never got a fair hearing when at Arsenal. Silva’s side, who completed an intriguing tour of Portugal with an easy win over Estoril that couldn’t quite paper over the cracks exposed by Benfica, will get a stern test against an outfit who have been outstanding in continental competition over the past couple of campaigns. Villarreal of course beat Manchester United on penalties to lift the Europa League title, and reached the semi-final stage of the Champions’ League last year. Whatever side they put out, it will be formidable.
The quality of Fulham’s central defenders could be tested by the clever movement of Gerard Moreno, although he did score the winner at St. Mary’s, and you would bank on Dani Parejo, a former QPR midfielder, finding forwards with fine through balls. Another name well known to English fans is Juan Foyth – who was rather squeezed out at Spurs, despite his promise – and the ball-playing centre back has been reinvented into one of the most reliable right backs on the continent. The Argentinian has been a Fulham target in both positions and may prove why later on. Several of the star names featured at Southampton, but regardless of who features at the Cottage, the Yellow Submarine will be a tough nut to crack. It should be an intriguing watch – and anyone who can’t make it to the Cottage this afternoon, will be able to follow all the action with Gentleman Jim on FFCTV.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Rodak; Mbabu, A. Robinson, Adarabioyo, Ream; Reed, Palhinha; Wilson, Kebano, Pereira; Mitrovic. Subs: Wickens, Tete, Odutayo, McAvoy, Cairney, Harris, Decordova-Reid, Stansfield, Muniz.