Fulham face another tricky away trip tomorrow afternoon, heading to the Hawthorns to take on relegation rivals West Bromwich Albion in what is already a make-or-break game at the foot of the Premier League.
The Baggies will be looking for an immediate response after their humbling at the hands of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City on Tuesday night. The visitors found it all too easy, a combination of their own silky skills, and some abject Albion defending leading to a five-star stroll. Prior to that humiliation, however, West Brom seemed to be on something of an upturn under Sam Allardyce. After crashing out of the FA Cup on penalties at League One Blackpool, Allardyce’s men travelled to local rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers and took all three points – coming back from 2-1 down to win 3-2 at Molineux. They were unlucky to lose at Allardyce’s former club West Ham and pinched a point in his first match as manager at Anfield.
Albion will want to rediscover home comforts having lost all four games at the Hawthorns since the ex-England manager replaced Slaven Bilic in December. Allardyce hasn’t been able to carry them out of the relegation zone having recorded just one win in charge and nor has he been able to stop his new charges from conceding goals at an alarming rate. New signings are planned, although it is unlikely that the imminent arrival of Galatasaray striker Mbaye Diagne will come in time for him to face Fulham. Instead, Allardyce will make personnel changes to the team thrashed by Manchester City – with Matt Phillips and Conor Gallagher likely to come back in. Lively winger Grady Dianagana is an injury doubt and Albion’s most potent threat is likely to be the mercurial Matheus Pereira, a star in the Championship, who has scored five goals and made three more this term.
Fulham are sorely in need of victories – Wednesday night’s stalemate at Brighton was their sixth draw in eight games – and goals, having scored just four in their last nine league matches. The most likely solution to that problem, in the absence of a new striker, is probably Aleskandar Mitrovic. The Serbian has just three to his name this season and has had been short of confidence having missed the pivotal penalty in his country’s failure to qualify for the European Championships and been overlooked as Scott Parker changed his system. But Mitrovic scored 26 goals in the Championship last year, scored eleven in a desperately poor Fulham side that was relegated in 2019, and showed encouraging sharpness as a substitute at Brighton. If restored to lead the line tomorrow, Mitrovic would bring a presence that has been missing from Fulham’s attack potentially alongside a livewire in Ademola Lookman, who already has three goals and three assists, and Bobby Decordova-Reid, who opened the scorer in the reverse fixture at Craven Cottage.
Parker will be able to call upon the services of Antonee Robinson, the American international who has been so impressive since arriving from Wigan in the summer, after his suspension for that sending off against Chelsea. Fulham looked badly unbalanced when the head coach opted to play Decordova-Reid at left wing-back on the south coast and Robinson’s desire to drive forward with pace and power could provide a new attacking option. Their only persisting injury worries are around Tom Cairney, who has just began a new course of treatment to overcome his knee problem, and Terence Kongolo, whose latest setback is a thigh strain.
Fulham can’t afford to be cut adrift at the bottom. For that reason, Parker needs to be more adventurous at the Hawthorns and back the quality in his side to cause West Brom problems. He should be bold and recall Mitrovic because a win would make such a difference to our survival bid.
MY FULHAM XI (5-3-2): Areola; Tete, Andersen, Tosin, Aina, Robinson; Anguissa, Reed, Loftus-Cheek; Lookman, Mitrovic
@ffcSeb’s score prediction– West Bromwich Albion 0-2 Fulham FC
Fulham travel to the Amex Stadium tonight for one of those classical relegation six pointers. The meeting with Brighton and Hove Albion, despite the protestations of both managers, looks like the typical ‘must win’ fixture. A win on the south coast would put the Cottagers just two points behind Brighton having played a game less, but defeat would leave the Seagulls eight points clear of the drop zone and with plenty of breathing space going into the second half of the season. The stakes are exceptionally high.
Sunday’s FA Cup capitulation to Burnley will still be fresh in the minds of Scott Parker, even if he did made eight changes for the fourth round tie ahead of what feels like a critical week in Fulham’s season. Parker, who has talked all season about the need to not be deflated by defeats, will be aiming for an immediate response against Albion, who recorded an impressive win at Leeds in their last league outing. Former Brentford forward Neal Maupay’s early strike was enough to earn Brighton’s first league away win since mid-November. It is Brighton’s form on the road that has been keeping them above water – Graham Potter’s men having won in thirteen league attempts at the AMEX.
Whilst the results haven’t been going Fulham’s way of late, the ‘progression’ that Parker described in yesterday’s pre-match press conference has been striking. Where earlier in the season, the Whites were comically vulnerable at the back, Parker’s adoption of a three-man central defence has seen them become much more resolute. Narrow defeats at the hands of Chelsea and Manchester United – where Fulham could legitimately consider themselves unfortunate to have been on the losing side – are their only reverses in the last seven league encounters. The problem is now at the other end of the pitch – Fulham have only scored four goals in their last eight league matches, passing up countless glorious opportunities in the process.
Brighton will be definitely be without strikers Danny Welbeck and Florin Andone – meaning that Elland Road matchwinner Maupay is most likely to lead the line for Potter. Winger Alireza Jahanbaksh and Tariq Lamptey, so impressive at right wing-back to date this term, are both missing with hamstring problems. Potter could be able to call on former Liverpool and Southampton midfielder Adam Lallana, who has been missing with a groin complaint, and Republic of Ireland international forward Aaron Connolly, sidelined recently with a hamstring injury, although both are expected to start on the bench.
Fulham will have to do without first choice left back Antonee Robinson, who is serving the third and final game of his three match suspension after his sending off against Chelsea. Tom Cairney’s knee problem and Terence Kongolo’s latest injury setback see them on the sidelines, but Parker otherwise has a fully fit squad to pick from.
This game feels like a make-or-break match. Defeat could see the Whites could adrift below the relegation line and Parker’s charges need to be ruthless, making the most of any chances that come their way against a very well-drilled defensive outfit. These are the sort of games that need to be won to mount a successful survival bid – and with wins at a premium this season – some of those impressive performances need to be translated into points on the board.
@ffcSeb’s prediction– Brighton and Hove Albion 0-1 Fulham FC
There’s little doubt that Aleksandar Mitrovic is irreplaceable. Both in terms of his goals and hold up play, the Serbian striker is invaluable to way that both his club and country play, which makes his moment of madness early on at Elland Road all the more galling. We’ve all heard of ‘leaving one on’ the opposition centre back, but that sort of uncontrolled aggression seemed to have been something that Mitrovic had left behind him in the north east, whatever Steve McClaren might think.
This afternoon’s confirmation that Mitrovic will be missing for Fulham’s next three matches was something of a foregone conclusion. Parker would have seen his talisman as one of the senior players who could lead by example and prevent Fulham’s season from completely subsiding after those two damaging defeats by Brentford and Leeds. The Fulham manager now has a tricky choice to make in the absence of Mitrovic and Aboubakar Kamara, who will also miss the trip to Loftus Road tomorrow night. Just who can lead the line and carry a serious goal threat that Fulham have lacked lately even with Mitrovic in the team?
Stansfield might seem like an emotive choice to lead the line at Loftus Road, but the teenager has had a dream start to life at Craven Cottage. He’s scored an incredible 22 goals in 14 Under 18 Premier League games and grabbed a goal on his under-23 debut for good measure as well. The teenager has already stepped up to senior level effectively, having produced an eye-catching cameo in the FA Cup as a late substitute against Aston Villa. Fulham’s prospects might even have been better served by him having more than a couple of minutes on the pitch as the Whites chased a late goal at the Valley and, while he hasn’t seen senior action since January, Stansfield has been training with the first team squad. He’s highly rated at Motspur Park, has an eye for a pass as well as the goal, and could surprise QPR. He certainly wouldn’t be be overawed by the opportunity.
On paper, Bobby Decordova-Reid looks like the most likely candidate to play up front on Tuesday evening. He might be more used to playing behind Mitrovic or more recently out on the wing for Fulham this season, but he’s no stranger to the leading role. He played up front successfully in his final season for Bristol City, scoring eighteen league goals, and also in the Premier League for Cardiff. Decordova-Reid has chipped in with five goals after a slow start at Craven Cottage, but there are nagging doubts about his finishing after he missed huge chances against both Lots of doubts have arisen about his finishing, squandering huge chances against both Brentford and Leeds. Could be as clinical as Mitrovic? There’s also another factor to consider. Parker would need to change Fulham’s style of play to accommodate Decordova-Reid as a forward. As more of a false nine or a deep-lying forward, he would more comfortable making runs in behind the back four – which might prove profitable given the range of passing in Fulham’s midfield.
Other options: Ivan Cavaleiro or Anthony Knockaert
A more fluid front three could see either Knockaert or Cavaleiro, who have largely disappointed on the wings this season, start through the middle with the proviso that the forward line would be much more interchangeable than previously.
With a combined nine goals between them, neither Cavaleiro or Knockaert have hit the heights of their previous seasons in the Championship, and they will need to weigh in with big displays now that Fulham’s participation in the play-offs appears under threat. It goes without saying that Fulham will struggle without Mitrovic, but there is no room for error after those two defeats by Brentford and Leeds. Maximum points against QPR and Birmingham are a must – and securing them without Mitrovic will send a message to the rest of the division that Fulham are far from a one-man team. Parker will want a reaction from his side tomorrow night and where better to put things right than in a local derby.
My preferred team line up v QPR; Rodak, Christie, Hector, Ream, Odoi, Reed, Cairney, Onomah, Knockaert, Decordova-Reid, Cavaleiro
Before the original fixture was postponed due to the spread of the coronavrius pandemic, I spoke to Brentford fan Lucas (@lucashesse8) about what we can expect in this London derby.
What do you make of your sides season so far?
“If I’m honest it’s been a brilliant season, arguably our best ever. To think how far we’ve come and now we’re competing for promotion to the Premier League is just mind blowing. If you were to tell any Brentford fan that we would get to the play-offs this year, every single one of them would be over the moon. Our striker, Ollie Watkins, is challenging Mitrovic for golden boot on 22 goals and defensively this year we’ve been outstanding. Evidently, from viewing our goal difference you can tell how much of an impact signing Pontus Jansson was in the summer! Despite our recent form, I really believe we can aim high for the rest of the season.”
You mentioned there Brentford’s recent in form – two wins in seven, do you think you have what it takes to stay in the playoff spots?
“Definitely. We sure have what it takes, but whether we will do it is a different question. However, any day of the week I’ll back my team and in my opinion with our quality and the desire to win from all the players is enough to get us over the line and finish the race. Two wins from seven games isn’t good enough, we know that. Although, after our 5-0 win over Wednesday and the hope for a return of the skipper against Fulham, I’m sure this is a turning point.”
What do you make of Thomas Frank so far this season?
“Thomas Frank has been class! He’s a man that I’ve been lucky enough to meet in pre-season, his attitude towards Brentford is superb. I think Frank plays a massive part in the success that’s occurred this season. This is because of the mindset he has and the passion he has for football. Personally, I think he suits the club brilliantly and is desperate for the squad to thrive. I’d love to see him take us up.
A tough choice considering the strong individuals in your squad, but whose the player Fulham should look out for tomorrow?
“As you say a very tough choice. Like I said earlier Ollie Watkins has been brilliant in front of goal of this season and is scoring for fun. Bryan Mbeumo, our french winger signed in the summer, has scored 14 goals in his first season. Not to mention Christian Norgaard, our central defensive midfielder, who has possibly been our best signing and could not get enough credit for the amazing performances he displays week in week out. However, I think the player Fulham need to look out for tommorow has got to be Said Benrahma. One of the best players to play at Griffin Park and his consistency is one asset that makes him so good. He plays superb almost every week, he is definitely one to look out for.”
And finally, what do you think will happen in the game itself and can we get a score prediction?
“It’s ‘The Six Pointer’. Four points separate the two teams and we all know the rivalry between us. There’s all to play for, it’s just about who turns up to play. All Bees are desperate to see a return of Pontus, which would be a massive confidence booster. I think there will be a sending off, both teams want to win it but I’m putting my faith in the boys to bring 3 points home from Craven Cottage.”
Ahead of tomorrow’s big lunchtime meeting with Bristol City, I asked City fan Euan (@euanbcfc_) a few questions about his side’s season so far.
What do you make of Bristol City’s season so far?
“It’s an odd one. On paper it should be seen as a success; seventh place, just two points off the play-offs. But compare that to a negative goal difference, a recent winless streak of four games, a period after our away win at Craven Cottage where we only beat teams in the bottom three until late January, plus that Cup defeat to Shrewsbury and it suddenly seems a bit disappointing.”
Do you see yourself being in a play-off spot come May?
“Personally, I’m not all that confident we can. I just don’t feel Johnson is able to get it done with you, Preston, Blackburn, Swansea all seemingly more up for it. But that being said, if we can get Wells scoring again and re-introduce Kasey Palmer as well as tightening up at the back a bit as well, I’d say we have a very decent chance.”
You mentioned Lee Johnson, what do you make of his season so far?
“In terms of the fanbase as a whole, I can’t remember a time when it’s been as split as it is now in regards to him. Personally, I wanted him gone months ago, but a lot of fans would definitely disagree. It just seems like he’s coached all flair and excitement out of our game this season, and if some of the dressing room rumours are true he’s most certainly lost it, which isn’t ideal when you’re pushing for the top six.”
Is there a player Fulham should look out for tomorrow afternoon?
“Normally I’d say Niclas Eliasson, but I can see him being dropped and our formation changed, so I’d probably say Dan Bentley in goal. Without him we’d be nowhere near where we are now, and I genuinely believe he’s one of the top three stoppers in the league. Ten clean Sheets in a team who, as I said, have a negative goal difference, shouldn’t be ignored. But again, if he plays it should really be Eliasson – his pace and ability on the ball is unreal, and he has the most assists in the league for a reason.”
Finally, how do you see tomorrow’s action unfolding and can you give us a score prediction?
“I can see it going either way to be honest with you. With it being our 125th anniversary game, and live on Sky, we should theoretically be really up for it, and obviously we won the return fixture earlier on on the season. However you’re simply on much better form, and of course you have two academy products in Bobby Reid and Joe Bryan who’ll be eager to get involved, so I have to admit I think it’s going to be an away win.”
Bristol City doubts; Dan Bentley, Benik Afobe, Marley Watkins, Zak Vyner
Fulham doubts; Terence Kongolo, Alfie Mawson, Joshua Onomah, Joe Bryan