After the desolation of last weekend’s late defeat by Manchester United, Fulham face arguably one of their toughest tests of the season at Villa Park this afternoon. Unai Emery has totally transformed Aston Villa in his short spell at the helm from a rabble in danger of relegation that he inherited after a meek capitulation at Craven Cottage into one of the continent’s most exciting outfits. Villa, who shrugged off the setback of conceding an early goal to triumph over AZ Alkmaar in the Europa Conference League on Thursday, are especially strong at home, where the Whites haven’t won since Hugo Rodallega’s late header gave Felix Magath’s feint hope of avoiding the drop in 2014.
Emery’s thirst for victory was emphasised during his press conference this week when, upon being informed that he had collected more points than Mikel Arteta and Jurgen Klopp since being appointed Steven Gerrard’s successor, he insisted that he only ‘wanted to win on Sunday’. Returning to winning ways domestically after a surprise defeat at Nottingham Forest last time out would clinch a thirteenth consecutive top-flight home win for the first time in forty years and see the Villains register six straight wins at the elite level of English football for the first time since 1932.
His team have demolished the opposition at Villa Park this season. In contrast to Fulham’s woeful return of just nine goals in eleven league games, Villa have scored three or more goals in all five of their home Premier League fixtures so far this term. The only team to extend that record to six matches is Manchester City, with Pep Guardiola’s champions stitching together that run at the start of last season. Ollie Watkins, who earned another England call-up earlier this week, took his goalscoring tally into double figures with the winner over AZ making it ten for the season, whilst Moussa Diaby – likely to start alongside the former Exeter and Brentford forward – has three goals and three assists already.
The threat comes from all over the field with Douglas Luiz, who has provided either a goal or an assist in each home game since Villa narrowly beat Fulham back in April, having found the net six times already this term. Lively winger Leon Bailey has already notched six times this season, whilst John McGinn and Jhon Dhuran are on four goals each. Emery does have some injury concerns ahead of this afternoon’s fixture with Diego Carlos unlikely to be fit after limping out of the AZ tie with a muscle complaint, although Alex Moreno appears to be ready to make a first appearance since injuring his hamstring in May.
Silva, a disciple of Emery’s since the Spaniard’s Sevilla days, was clear in his own pre-match comments this week that he wanted his players to relish the challenge of ending Villa’s remarkable home run. There was much to admire about Fulham’s battling display against Manchester United, even if the head coach castigated his defenders for failing to clear the ball before Bruno Fernandes’ stoppage-time strike, and saved some opprobrium for the forwards who frequently picked the wrong option in the final third before that. The Fulham head coach praised Rodrigo Muniz for the quality of his hold-up play before the Brazilian sustained an untimely knee injury – and that leaves Silva with a choice between Raul Jimenez, who hasn’t scored in 33 league games, and Carlos Vinicius to lead the line.
Fulham’s injury crisis is easing with Kenny Tete, Tosin Adarabioyo and Adama Traore all back in full training and available for selection, although Silva admitted none of them were likely to return to the starting line-up. That should lead to a hundredth Premier League appearance for Timothy Castagne with left-footers Tim Ream and Calvin Bassey paired together at the heart of the defence. The performance of Joao Palhinha, who has already racked up a half century of successful tackles in the top flight, will be pivotal to preventing Villa finding their usual rhythm on home turf, but the Whites will need to find some fluency of their own in the last third of the pitch.
Harry Wilson, whom Rob Page has identified as one of his key players for Wales since the retirement of Gareth Bale, enjoyed his best game of a stop-start campaign last Saturday lunchtime without reward, but the form of Andreas Pereira, so pivotal to Fulham’s persistent pressing and creativity last term, has to be a concern. The Brazilian barely flickered as an attacking force against his old club and there might be a case for pushing Alex Iwobi further forward into his favoured number ten role or including Tom Cairney, who has a history of turning it on against Villa. That’s before Silva settles the vexed question of who leads the line.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Leno; Castagne, A. Robinson, Bassey, Ream; Palhinha, Iwobi; Wilson, Willian, Cairney; Jimenez. Subs: Rodak, Tete, Adarabioyo, Reed, Lukic, Decordova-Reid, Traore, Pereira, Vinicius.