Back in the summer, if I’d have suggested that Fulham would travel to St. James’ Park in January and – win, lose, or draw – stay in the top flight then my mates would have either staged an intervention or summoned the men in white coats. However many times you might need to pinch yourself, it is true. The brilliant win over Chelsea on Thursday was the Whites’ fourth victory in a row – making Marco Silva the first Fulham boss to manage that in the top flight since Vic Buckingham in 1966. Long may all the attention remain on the sides that the Whites defeat, if it keeps the peerless Portuguese coach’s achievements remain under the radar.
Silva will regain tomorrow’s tussle with Newcastle United, currently in a Champions’ League as Eddie Howe carries out his own revolution, as an opportunity to right a wrong from October. Howe describes the Magpies’ SW6 stroll in October as one of the moments that turned Newcastle’s season – but Fulham’s game plan for that Craven Cottage clash went out the window with Nathaniel Chalobah’s seventh-minute sending off. Optimism abounds under Howe on Tyneside, with Newcastle’s progress into the League Cup semi-finals, a further indication of their progress after a pair of goalless draws.
Howe has plenty of artistry to pick from in the final third of the field, but Newcastle’s improvement is largely down to the best defensive record in the division. A settled back four, which includes former Fulham centre half Dan Burn, has conceded just eleven goals in eighteen games. The former Bournemouth boss might have a few selection dilemmas to ponder tonight. Joelinton’s excellent form in the engine room has been one of the reasons why Allan Saint-Maximin has had to settle for a place amongst the substitutes bench, but the Brazilian’s drink-driving charge could see him drop of the starting line-up. Howe probably has to choose from Chris Wood, fit-again Alexander Isak and Callum Wilson – a regular scorer against the Whites – up front, with the latter likely to get the nod.
Newcastle are still prone to puzzling slip-ups, such as last weekend’s humbling at Hillsborough in the FA Cup, but this will be one of Fulham’s toughest tests of what is already an incredible campaign. Silva’s side have already picked up 31 points which is not bad for a side considered relegation candidates by virtually all the pundits in pre-season and represents the best return by a promoted club at this stage of the season since Wolves in 2006. The Cottagers are enjoying their travels having registered four wins on the road, as many as they managed in both of their last two forgettable top flight campaigns. They will need to be disciplined both with the ball and without it tomorrow – and there is a nagging worry that the relentless post-World Cup schedule will eventually catch up with what is still a small squad.
Silva will have to make at least one change after the first SW6 derby success in seventeen years – with Layvin Kurzawa, fresh from scoring his first Fulham goal, primed to replace the suspended Antonee Robinson at left back. Carlos Vinicius looks likely to be rewarded for heading home the winner against Chelsea with a place on the bench as Aleksandar Mitrovic returns from a ban. The former Newcastle forward, who has already scored eleven times this term, will fancy his chances of becoming the first Fulham player to score in four consecutive Premier League away contests.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Leno; Tete, Kurzawa, Diop, Ream; Palhinha, Reed; Decordova-Reid, Willian, Pereira; Mitrovic. Subs: Rodak, Adarabioyo, Chalobah, Cairney, Wilson, James, Solomon, Harris, Vinicius