Mikel Arteta brushed off questions about the delirious nature of Arsenal’s celebrations by instructing his interviewers to visit a church on Sundays if they wanted to forego passion. Fortunately for the Spaniard, the Gunners’ next assignment is this afternoon’s London derby at the capital’s oldest professional club formed after Reverend John Henry Caldwell, the curate of St. Andrew’s Church in Fulham Fields, and the Dumfries-born Doctor Patrick Murdoch, who ran the main medical practice on Lillie Road, got together to form Fulham St. Andrew’s in 1879. Craven Cottage regulars are regularly reckoned to be lacking in passion, but this season they are regularly praising whoever brought Marco Silva to SW6.
The Portuguese coach was dismayed by the Whites’ sluggish start in Hounslow on Monday night that contributed to a disappointing derby defeat and insisted that his players would know how they start improve immediately. Silva and the Fulham side are still smarting from the denouement to the reverse fixture at Ashburton Grove in August – when Bernd Leno was impeded at a late corner, spilled the ball, which hit an Arsenal arm and was swept into the net by Gabriel, who had earlier gifted an opening to Aleksandar Mitrovic. The scenes both then and at the final whistle – after Fulham had been penalised from even challenging Aaron Ramsdale – suggested the Gunners had won the Champions’ League rather than beaten a newly-promoted side.
Since then, of course, both clubs have dramatically exceeded expectations. The Gunners look like the real deal after almost two decades of underachievement, with the style of the Ealing Eusabio Bukayo Saka joined most recently by an inspired contribution from Reiss Nelson, who starred as Arsenal completed a Lazarus-like comeback against Bournemouth. They have survived the departure of Leno, for a paltry £3m, and are less fragile at the back than in recent campaigns, with artistry all over the park and the Norwegian nous of Martin Ødegaard to the fore. Arsenal have recovered from a sticky patch that saw them take a point from three games against Everton, Brentford and Manchester City, whose late win at Crystal Palace keeps them in touch. The return of Ødegaard and Gabriel Jesus could be crucial today.
Fulham’s fabulous campaign continues to go on the radar, which will suit everyone at Motspur Park down to the ground. The Whites will have to do without the irreplaceable Joao Palhinha again this afternoon and Silva will hope that his charges cope better than they did at west London’s pale imitation of Legoland on Monday night. Sasa Lukic is at least unlikely to be assaulted by another violent centre forward under a betting cloud, although the Serbian might benefit from swapping roles with Harrison Reed: asking the Ginger Iniesta to fill the creative role made no sense given how Lukic has run games for both Torino and the national side with the ball at his feet in the last couple of years.
Silva’s options are further depleted by injuries to Shane Duffy, Neeskens Kebano, Layvin Kurzawa and Tom Cairney, although the classy playmaker has returned to training. Cedric Soares can’t face his parent club, although given his generous gift of a third goal to our near neighbours with a steepling shank after stepping off the bench on Monday – that might not be worst thing in the world. Fulham’s success this season has largely depended on a solid core of professionals knowing their roles and performing peerlessly, but the punishing Premier League schedule – a legacy of the disgraceful decision to stage in the World Cup in Qatar – and a Cup run to the quarter finals of FA Cup has a small squad seriously stretched.
Leno isn’t the only former Gunner who will be keen to prove a point against his former employers. Willian’s one season at Arsenal, from whom he shone at Craven Cottage on the opening weekend in 2020, convinced the Brazilian to return home to join his boyhood club Corinthians. After his family received death threats, it was a decision that was quickly reversed – with Fulham the fortunate beneficiaries of the 34 year-old’s desire to come back to the English capital. It seems preposterous that a player who has won six domestic titles, four domestic cups, two continental competitions and the Copa America should have any more doubters but he probably silenced them with his glorious goal of the month against Nottingham Forest.
On paper this should be Fulham’s toughest test of the season and it will be swiftly followed by a trip to Old Trafford to take on Eric ten Haag’s side, who will be hungry to prove that their abject surrender at Anfield was merely an aberration. Silva’s side don’t lack for confidence but in order to match the two memorable home wins over Arsenal in the Premier League era – seventeen years ago under Chris Coleman and, more recently, when Steve Sidwell and Bobby Zamora secured a late success for Martin Jol’s men – they will need to replace Monday’s timidity with the tenaciousness that has typified their terrific return to the top flight.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Leno; Tete, A. Robinson, Diop, Ream; Reed, Lukic; Decordova-Reid, Solomon, Pereira; Mitrovic. Subs: Rodak, D’Auria-Henry, Adarabioyo, Harris, Willian, Wilson, James, Vinicius.
BDR instead of Willian??…not sure I’d go for that Dan. Surely Willian would start.