Neither Marco Silva nor João Palhinha could bring themselves to say they were happy with two points from Fulham’s first two matches back in the top flight. Both felt the Whites could have beaten Liverpool, whom they twice lead, and Wolves, where Aleksandar Mitrovic had a late spot-kick saved. But two feisty displays hint at this side being far more competitive in the Premier League than the two previous outfits who went down with a whimper rather than a snarl. Merely having Palhinha, a Portuguese terrier, in the engine room will ensure that the Cottagers are combative to the last.
The fans are encouraged by the fact that Fulham have picked up a pair of points from fixtures where the pundits and the pessimists feared nothing would be forthcoming. Liverpool, despite their slow start to the season, remain one of the continent’s finest teams and Molineux is a tough place to go. Any August optimism would disappear in a flash, however, were Fulham were to roll over for Brentford at Craven Cottage this afternoon. The Bees have had the better of this particular west London derby since it began to be contested regularly again in 2014 – after a seventeen year hiatus that roughly coincided with the Cottagers’ climb up the pyramid. It is 32 years since Fulham last beat Brentford at home in the league, when Steve Milton scored the only goal.
There are two more barren runs that Silva will be seeking to snap today. The Whites haven’t won a Premier League game in twelve matches – one more and they’ll equal the club record set in the dismal 2013/14 campaign. Perhaps more worryingly, Fulham have gone 24 top-flight London derbies without a win since Steve Sidwell and Dimitar Berbatov saw off ten-man West Ham on New Year’s Day in 2014, dragging the Whites out of the relegation zone and giving Rene Meulensteen (remember him?) fleeting home of securing salvation. Given the number of capital clashes to come this season – not to mention in the next few weeks – an overdue win feels like something of a necessity.
It won’t be easy. Brentford, barring the baffling decision to allow the home secretary to pontificate about her Rwandan deportation scheme from inside the confines of their new stadium, are an exceptionally well-run scheme. Matthew Benham’s deployment of data-driven metrics and trusting of experienced football lieutenants to lead recruitment has guided them to the highest point in the club’s history and the Bees are buzzing after battering Manchester United last weekend. The Red Devils were distinctly off-colour, but Benham’s stewardship is no flash in the pan and can only be glanced at enviously by those in a white persuasion given that Fulham are hamstrung by a perilous Financial Fair Play predicament as they seek the final pieces in Silva’s jigsaw with the summer transfer deadline looming.
Brentford might not have Christian Eriksen, whose uplifting return to the Premier League midway through last season, steered them clear of any relegation worries after Thomas Frank’s side had hit something of a sticky patch having initially taken to the top flight like a duck to water. But the playmaker, something of a pantomime villain in Hounslow these days, wasn’t missed last weekend. Frank and the Brentford hierarchy have closed a collection of astute deals over the summer, seeing Aaron Hickey arrive after a stint in Serie A and Mikkel Damsgaard sign a five-year deal last week. Mattias Jensen had an outstanding game against United and the threat posed by Bryan Mbeumo and Ivan Toney might have Silva pondering changes even after two creditable draws.
Fulham’s squad still looks lightweight for the unrelenting pace of this Premier League season, with games coming thick and fast as the powers-that-be have shamelessly shoehorned in a winter World Cup in Qatar. The head coach is light on quality wingers after the devastating double injury blow that leaves Harry Wilson, so influential last year, and new signing Manor Solomon months away from fitness. He had to ask Jay Stansfield to roam on the right flank in the closing minutes at Wolves and, although the teenager acquitted himself well on his first appearance at this level, Silva is seeking additions in the wide areas as well as up front. Neal Maupay, who once scored a stoppage-time equaliser for Brentford in SW6, is understood to be the latest top target with deals to bring in Justin Kluivert and William also believed to be close to completion.
None of those signings have happened in time for the meeting of two near neighbours. Silva’s conundrum remains whether to keep the faith with loyal club servants or integrate some of the summer acquisitions. Aside from one mix-up with Tosin Adarabioyo, Marek Rodak was assured at Molineux in keeping Fulham’s first Premier League clean sheet in thirteen games. Bernd Leno – clearly brought in to be Fulham’s new number one – may have to remain patient. So too will Issa Diop, despite his big money across the capital from West Ham, with Tim Ream belying both his 35 years and a lack of pass to put in two top displays against Liverpool and Wolves. Kevin Mbabu did make a debut in the Midlands, but it would be harsh to drop Kenny Tete after the Dutch full back’s start to the season.
The key to success will be playing with an intensity that Fulham have lacked in previous derbies. Even the play-off final victory was a slow burner, memorably sealed by two moments of Joe Bryan brilliance. Silva has seen his side start both league matches this season at a ferocious tempo, typified by the tigerish harrying of Harrison Reed and Palhinha from the midfield of the park. The high press, which is why Andreas Pereira has been preferred to club captain Tom Cairney to date, visibily discomforted Liverpool and Fulham’s fitness in the scorching heat at Wolves was exceptional. Getting the ball to Mitrovic in areas where the Serbian, in the form of his life despite last week’s failure from twelve yards, can hurt Brentford will be crucial. Best of luck to everyone making what looks like being a complicated journey to Craven Cottage – unless you are in a car – this afternoon. This derby may tell us plenty about Fulham’s fortunes this term.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Rodak; Tete, A. Robinson, Adarabioyo, Ream; Reed, Palhinha; Decordova-Reid, Kebano, Pereira; Mitrovic. Subs: Leno, Mbabu, Duffy, Diop, Chalobah, Cairney, Harris, Jasper, Stansfield.