Fulham are back in the Premier League and the long wait for the big kick off ends today. There might be more apprehension than anticipation given this (early) afternoon’s opponents are Liverpool, who look well equipped to push Manchester City all the way at the top of the table again at the very least, and Marco Silva’s warning about not being ready for the challenge due to a lack of summer signings. Since Silva adopted his best spiky Slavisa posture after last Sunday’s draw with Villarreal, the Whites have supplemented their squad with the arrival of Bernd Leno and Shane Duffy but it still looks light for the increased demands of a packed Premier League schedule in a winter World Cup year.
Plenty of the pundits have picked Fulham to complete the yo-yo for third successive pair of seasons and most have tipped Liverpool to leave the Cottage having handed out a hammering. Silva is a shrewder operator than either of the two managers who began top flight seasons under the Khans and, for all of his talk of being bold and taking the game to Liverpool, the recruitment of Joao Palhinha showed that the Portuguese head coach recognised that he needed to tighten up what was a ridiculously open engine room in the Championship. Signing the Sporting schemer for a reported £17m seems a steal given the Portuguese international’s potential and he could form a pivotal partnership with the effervescent Harrison Reed in front of the back four.
The composition of that defence remains an open question. You would expect Leno to gain the gloves from Marek Rodak after finally completing a protracted move from Arsenal. The 30 year-old has significant top flight experience in England – an improvement of the succession of goalkeepers brought in ahead of previous Premier League campaign – and is motivated to perform with a spot in the Germany World Cup party still up for grabs. It might be hard on Rodak, who has again been usurped after helping the Whites win promotion for a second time, but you can’t argue with this sort of upgrade; especially as Silva has been championing the need for a new goalkeeper for most of the summer.
It is a straight choice between Kenny Tete, who has struggled for both form and particularly fitness since joining from Lyon two summers ago, and Mbabu, who provided the equaliser for Aleksandar Mitrovic in an impressive cameo off the bench last weekend. I’d edge towards the Swiss international, who is just as adventurous as Tete but probably shades the Dutchman defensively, but it is a very tight call. Antonee Robinson will start on the other flank, with his pace an asset at both ends of the pitch, as Joe Bryan recovers from his broken hand. It will be interesting to see whether Duffy, the sort of powerful presence – particularly aerially – that Fulham have lacked in the last few Premier League is paired alongside Tosin Adarabioyo straight away or if Silva keeps faith with Tim Ream.
The news that Harry Wilson will miss at least the first months of the campaign after being taken out by Tyrone Mings during a training game is a big blow. The Welsh winger was brilliant in his first season by the banks of the Thames and would have been buzzing at the prospect of taking on his old club. In Wilson’s absence, the right wing slot will probably be filled by boyhood Liverpool fan Bobby Decordova-Reid, who was arguably Fulham’s surprise package during the 2020/21 campaign, and scored a brilliant goal to give Scott Parker’s side the lead over today’s opponents at the Cottage that December. Decordova-Reid’s dependability makes him an integral member of this squad – and his work ethic that sees him cover every blade of grass could be crucial today.
Manor Solomon is line for a first appearance in the white shirt after one of the most strung out transfer sagas in the club’s history. The Israeli winger is now a Fulham player and will be available for selection, but whether he will be thrown from the start without match sharpness remains to be seen. Solomon’s ability to produce a sublime moment out of nothing and his penchant for producing on the big occasion would make gamble, but there’s a reason is why I’m compiling this preview rather than preparing a side for the big kick off. Andreas Pereira, who has a strong pre-season in the number ten role, should start off Mitrovic but possesses the profile to regularly join the Serbian in the penalty area as well as get beyond him at times.
The task before Fulham is formidable. Jurgen Klopp is one of the world’s best managers and has recently extended his contract at Anfield, something said to be key in persuading Fabio Carvalho to move to Merseyside this summer. Liverpool have a squad packed to the brim with talent, even if a number of key personnel – including Ibrahima Konate, Diogo Jota, Kostas Tsimikas and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – will be missing. Alisson returns in goal, whilst Naby Keita faces a late fitness test, and the power of the Reds’ attacking arsenal, featuring the likes of Mo Salah, Luis Diaz and Darwin Nunez, is awesome. Should they need fire the galling prospect of Carvalho or Harvey Elliott, two Fulham academy graduates, coming off bench to inflict pain on a weary Whites’ defence is heart-wrenching.
Another wild ride is just about to commence. Let’s be vociferous in our support of Silva’s side this lunchtime, but chose not to follow the example of elements of the Manchester City support during the Community Shield last week – or much more surprisingly, Martin Tyler on Radio Four in midweek – and sing songs about ‘murderers’, Heysel or Hillsborough. The Hillsborough families are amongst the most courageous campaigners in the country, having lived with an injustice for decades, seen their loved ones smeared by the state without any ability to respond and justice still remains elusive. That is why the Hillsborough Law Now campaign launched by Steve Rotheram and Andy Burnham in January is vital, especially after the attempts to cover up the scandalous policing and stewarding of the Champions’ League final in Paris. Fulham fans are better than to mock the pain of those who suffer, especially given how we still honour the memory of our own Matthew Fox. Justice for the 97 remains as crucial today as it ever was.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Leno; Mbabu, A. Robinson, Adarabioyo, Duffy; Palhinha, Reed; Decordova-Reid, Pereira, Solomon; Mitrovic. Subs: Rodak, Tete, Ream, Odutayo, Cairney, Harris, Kebano, Stansfield, Muniz.