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Fulham’s goalkeeping dilemma

It is only right that, after clinching promotion in the past week, attention turns to how Fulham might avoid a third consecutive relegation from the Premier League. Marco Silva has confidently asserted that the club are in a far better position to compete at the highest level now than on the last two occasions they went up via the play-offs – and it is crucial that the Whites use these precious through weeks to get a head start in terms of recruiting the key figures who can help them stay up. Fulham have always opted to bring in at least one goalkeeper ahead of a Premier League campaign, something which must be worrying the current incumbent.

Marek Rodak began the Silva era on the bench, having been displaced by summer signing Paolo Gazzaniga, but he has proven his quality at Championship level. Having won the number one jersey back from Marcus Bettinelli and becoming a crucial part of Fulham’s previous promotion, the Slovakian international soon ousted Gazzaniga and has firmly established himself as Silva’s first choice in goal. The whispers have never gone away about whether the academy graduate could do it at the very highest level – he was dropped after the opening day defeat against Arsenal last term and not seen again under the end of the season against Newcastle – and a couple of errors against Coventry City proved costly recently, especially after the red tops had been speculating about Fulham’s interest in acquiring a new custodian.

Rodak has undoubtedly improved as a goalkeeper over the course of this campaign and he was magnificent on the night that Silva’s side finally secured their place in the Premier League with a 3-0 win over Preston North End. The scoreline certainly wouldn’t have been as comfortable without his pair of outstanding saves in the early stages and he tipped a long-range effort onto the crossbar just after the break as North End looked to get back into the contest. There can be no quibbling with the fact that Rodak solidified a Fulham backline that seemed shaky after returning to the team following October’s shocking second half in the Ricoh Stadium rain.

But Rodak’s reluctance to come off his line and claim a high ball will be tested in the top flight. The Premier League is an unforgiving environment and few will need reminding that Scott Parker’s side went down even with an excellent goalkeeper in Alphonse Areola. The Slovakian may have improved with the ball at his feet, but he isn’t the sweeper-keeper that Silva clearly covets. Areola has been criminally underused at West Ham this season – excelling in the Hammers’ run to the Europa League semi-finals – and he might be available again should the Irons’ hierarchy not exercise the option in his current loan from PSG to trigger a permanent deal.

Recent reports have also indicated Fulham may hold an interest in the Burnley goalkeeper Nick Pope, who has been one of the Premier League’s most consistent shot stoppers over the past few years. He first showcased his ability at Charlton and may fancy a return to the capital, with top flight football probably essential to retain his place in Gareth Southgate’s squad for the forthcoming World Cup. But Burnley’s relegation is no foregone conclusion – despite the crazy sacking of Sean Dyche – and Pope will have plenty of suitors if he is allowed to leave Turf Moore. That’s why the Whites are casting a wide net in search of an upgrade in goal.

Dean Henderson might well be regretting his decision to remain at Manchester United, having barely got a look in at Old Trafford as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Ragnick have largely stuck with David de Gea, our old scourge from Hamburg. Another England international, Henderson showed his credentials by starring in goal for Sheffield United in an outstanding campaign after their promotion to the Premier League and, like Pope, will be craving first-team football in the top flight to boost his own international hopes. The rumoured £40m price tag seems insane, but the tabloids claim that United are open to a loan deal and that Fulham are at the front of the queue.

Sam Johnstone, like West Brom, has had a hugely disappointing campaign, which has culminated in Steve Bruce leaving him out of the Baggies side. Intelligence from the Midlands suggests that he will be on the move this summer with interest in his services coming from his old club Manchester United, Tottenham and West Ham. When he was on form at West Brom, Johnstone was also a regular fixture in Southgate’s England squad but I fail to see how he would be significantly better than either Rodak or Gazzaniga, who enjoyed an outstanding run in the Tottenham side when deputising for Hugo Lloris.

The fantastical stories linking Fulham with a move for Lazio’s Sergio Milinkovic-Savic earlier this week – with Aleksandar Mitrovic apparently used as the go-between his compatriot – made much more sense when subsequent reports suggests the Whites were eyeing a move for the midfielder’s brother, the 6ft8in Torino goalkeeper Vanja. Once on the books of Manchester United, the 25 year-old has enjoyed an excellent season for I Granata, making 26 appearances and keeping four clean sheets. He still has three years to run on his current contract with the Serie A side – so enticing him to Craven Cottage might take a little more than Mitrovic’s best line in sweet talking.

I’d throw a couple of further options into the mix – although I’m sure Fulham’s scouting network is currently scouring the globe for alternatives. Bernd Leno, a German international with plenty of Premier League experience, appears out of favour at Arsenal and will be seeking regular football. The Inter veteran Samir Handanovic is out of contract this summer and would be an intriguing option. His age may count against him at 37, but we saw Mark Schwarzer perform heroics in goal for Fulham’s most successful side, and the Slovenian international has a wealth of experience of continental football. He could mentor both Rodak and Fulham’s plethora of promising young keepers whilst adding reassurance in goal for a couple of seasons.

Demoting Rodak might seem harsh after his contribution to a pair of Fulham promotions but there is no room for sentiment as Fulham seek to crack the elusive Premier League code. It seems pretty clear that Silva is hunting a new goalkeeper and a swift signing will be key to making sure the Whites are ready for the big kick off come early August.

What might Manor Solomon bring to Fulham?

The feelgood factor is definitely flowing around Fulham at the moment. Marco Silva’s side are enjoying a magnificent season atop the Championship and the scenes that greeted confirmation of their promotion to the Premier League following Tuesday’s win over Preston North End will stay with everyone fortunate enough to be there. Seeing the fans celebrating with their heroes on the Craven Cottage turf is on a par with the ‘White Wall’ at Wembley for me and there was just something about sharing that magical moment with everyone under the lights.

The narrative has already been rammed home that Fulham will follow this serene glide to the top tier by sliding straight back out of it. There’s no doubt surviving in the Premier League is tougher than it used to be, but Silva and the club’s recruitment team do at least have longer to build a top flight team than in either of the two promotions under the Khans. If you believe the widespread reports one arrival has already been secured, the Israeli winger Manor Solomon, who is set to sign from Shakhtar Donetsk, having been evacuated to Poland as soon as Russia invaded Ukraine.

Solomon, for years considered a wonderkid because of his spellbinding showings in youth football, can also operate in the number ten role – and perhaps this is why he has been referenced as a potential replacement for Fabio Carvalho. He has been a mainstay in the Shakhtar side for the past few seasons, with his ability to beat players prompting comparisons with Eden Hazard from some quarters. Standing at just 5ft 6in, Solomon’s low centre of gravity makes him a diminutive figure but his penchant for taking the ball past opponents will definitely get fans out of their seats. He has certainly been linked with a big money move since starring for Shakhtar, with the likes of Napoli, Arsenal and AS Roma interested, so for Fulham to snap him up for around £7m seems a serious coup.

I spoke with Israeli sports journalist Dani Porath, from television channel Sport5, who gave us the lowdown on Solomon ahead of his potential move to SW6.

“Manor is very skilful with the ball. One of the best dribblers in eastern Europe. He likes to make runs from the left and cut inside. He will want to improve his statistics in order to play in the Premier League but I don’t think he will be a direct replacement for a number ten like Carvalho, as he prefers to play on the left flank. I think Solomon’s style will suit Fulham and he can be a key player for Fulham in the Premier League if people are patient with him.”

Despite being just 22, Solomon already has a European pedigree. He has won the Ukrainian title twice as well as lifting the Ukrainian Cup and Super Cup at Shakhtar. He has scored several goals in the Champions League, most memorably finding the net home and way against Real Madrid in 2020, and the Europa League and is the Israeli national side’s star player. Getting a player of such potential through the door quickly makes a refreshing change to Fulham’s transfer business and it will certainly be fun watching the winger try to establish himself in English football.

The enduring class of Tom Cairney

Yesterday’s win felt massive. Getting three points at Stoke is never easy, but beating them without two key players in a see-saw contest was some achievement. A run of four wins in succession opens up an eight-point gap at the Championship for Marco Silva’s men, which is some response to a packed schedule. Success in Staffordshire was also notable for another reason: Tom Cairney completed his fourth start in a row. When you think of all the angst over the Fulham captain’s injury absence, his return his a joy to watch. Silva acclaimed his display as his best of the season.

Plenty of people wondered whether Cairney, magisterial at times in this division, would ever reach the levels he attained before the destabilising knee injuries. There were rumours that he could only train once a week and that playing might be a step too far. Coming back from such a long spell on the sidelines takes plenty of character and Cairney himself admitted that he found watching Fulham get relegated as a helpless spectator really tough. We all saw the outpouring of emotion on the night he made his return after cracking in that lovely volley against Cardiff. He’s kicked on from cameo appearances to become the fulcrum of Fulham’s midfield once again.

Cairney’s class was never in doubt, from the moment he burst on the scene as a youngster with an eye for goal at Hull to his dominant displays at Blackburn. It was baffling that Kit Symons deployed him as an inverted wide man on the right, but the midfielder began to flourish once Slavisa Jokanovic switched him into the number ten role. Cairney managed six goals and eight assists in a frustrating first season at Craven Cottage, but with the Serbian’s surgery on his squad began the man who Fulham’s fluid football flowed. He scored twelve goals, none more notable than the injury-time equaliser against Leeds, and added eleven assists as the Whites were cruelly beaten at Reading in a tight play-off semi-final.

His tears on the pitch at the Madjeski Stadium showed just how much it meant. There were fears that he might find Premier League football elsewhere, but Cairney committed his future to the club, saying how determined he was to lead Fulham back to the top flight. He grew in stature have handed the captaincy and, even as those knee problems began to disrupt his season,
matched the previous campaign’s goal tally. After playing through the pain to take Fulham to Wembley, there was a storybook ending as he slotted Ryan Sessegnon’s sublime through ball under Sam Johnstone to secure promotion on that magical day.

There have always been question marks about whether Cairney can do it in the top flight, but nobody emerged from the 2018/2019 with credit. Three managers followed a summer transfer splurge and a badly disjointed squad, with Cairney only finding a regular spot in the side once Scott Parker had picked up the pieces. He filled a new number eight role for Parker in the Championship, a deployment that denied the Whites the benefit of his unrivalled passing in the final third, and was harshly dropped after performing brilliantly against West Brom back in the top flight.

Cairney’s knee problems were said to be career-ending and it would have been a sad way for a bona fide Fulham great to bow out. The man himself was having none of that and battled his way back into contention much earlier than anyone had expected. He deserved a genuinely tear-jerking moment in front of the Hammersmith End all of us own: the sweet volley showed he had lost none of his technique, but his progression back into a table-topping side has proved his durability. Cairney has not just added more goals to his game – he has four since his return – he is spraying those sublime passes around like he’s never been gone.

It is wonderful to watch him playing football with a smile on his face once again. There were some sublime Cruyff turns that riled the Stoke supporters yesterday and the uptick in form since he has assumed his place in the Fulham midfield indicates he will be vital to yet another promotion push. Silva seems to have given his skipper a freer role to influence proceedings than his predecessor and Cairney is thriving in it. We feared Jean Michael Seri’s absence at the Africa Cup of Nations, but with the Ivorian in Cameroon, the Reed-Cairney axis has really prospered.

I’m sure Cairney will consider the Premier League as unfinished business. His ability to keep the ball and unlock defences could be vital in a division where Fulham have been too easily brushed aside in the past. But the 31 year-old has been around long enough to know not to take anything for granted. He’ll want to make sure Fulham don’t flitter away their advantage at the top of the table. It really is fantastic to have him back pulling the strings from the middle of the park – let’s hope we can see him lifting the Championship trophy come May. That would be a fitting reward after ten months of agony for Fulham’s master craftsman.

Do Fulham need to strengthen?

After scoring thirteen goals in two games and looking a cut above the competition going forward, it may strange to pose the question about whether Fulham need to strengthen to support their promotion push? But the best sides never stop seeking constant improvement and Marco Silva was clear in his press conference on Friday that the Whites are open to making a move in the market should the right player be available.

One area where an acquisition might prove valuable would be in the middle of the park. Seri has options such as Reed, Cairney, Chalobah and Francois while Seri is currently on AFCON duty. Reed is undoubtedly much better when he plays his defensive disruptive role for Fulham but a midfield enforcer focused on protecting the back four could be a shrewd signing. Someone who is a master of the dark arts: the like of which we haven’t seen since Stefan Johansen departed or Kevin McDonald, a slightly different type of player immediately, was laid low by his kidney problems.

We saw just yesterday against Bristol City that when the opposition broke at pace Fulham lacked the nous to take one for the team. Tom Cairney was badly caught out for the first goal as the Robins raced forward from a corner and both Tim Ream and Harrison Reed had the opportunity to stop Antoine Semenyo when he burst over the half way line. Neither brought him down, and whilst the striker finished before chances impressively, both goals felt avoidable.

It remains to be seen if Chalobah can step up to fill the void left by the lack of a genuinely defensively-minded midfielder. There’s no doubt the one-team England international has the pedigree to become a key player at Craven Cottage, but we’ve yet to see him demonstrate it in a Fulham shirt so far. Fulham were heavily linked with former West Brom man Okay Yokuslu earlier in the window but of late that rumour has gone cold with Celta preferring a permanent move for the Turkish international. He has however stated he’d like to return to England and there is no doubt he is the type of player that is in question here, in his short stay in the Midlands he showed his craft at breaking the game up but also composure to find the more creative players in the side.

The Whites might still need additional bodies in the wide positions. At present, Kebano and Wilson look formidable and are looking devastating down the flank but what happens if one or god forbid both got injured? It seems unlikely that Silva will turn to Knockaert, who has been told that he can leave the club, or Cavaleiro, who is some way from full fitness. Carvalho or Bobby Decordova-Reid might be able to fill in on account of their versatility and it would be interesting to see what Sylvester Jasper could do after his impressive performances at Colchester. The suggestion is that our new Bulgarian under-21 international is likely to go out on loan again however.

There haven’t been a lot of credible links to wide players but Josh Bowler is one that has popped up briefly, he has the most completed dribbles in the league this season and Fulham fans know first hand what he can do because he found the net when Blackpool beat the whites at Bloomfield Road earlier this season with one of his mazy runs and an assured finish.
That rumour has also gone quiet as of late, Fulham are also linked to Algerian attacking midfielder Angelino Fulgini but the asking price of 20m euro seems too step in January and especially with the club’s FFP status it would be too much of a risk at this stage.

So transfer rumours have been few and far between this window so far but as we know the window hots up towards its close however in another Pandemic affected year and with the whites performing as well as they are the hierarchy may feel that now is not the the time to add to the squad and the reason we haven’t seen many links is because Silva is more than happy with his squad.

Ream’s reassuring revival

Tim Ream’s made a habit of proving people wrong. He famously fought his way back in Slavisa Jokanovic’s plans when it seemed like he was set to leave Craven Cottage – and the likeable defender has done so again this year in becoming one of the key figures in Marco Silva’s rebuild. Skippering the side under the new manager represented a dramatic shift from being jettisoned by Scott Parker, but his inclusion made sense given that the veteran has never let Fulham down at Championship level and his skillset is ideally suited to Silva’s footballing philosophy.

Aside from a couple of painful injuries, it is clear that Ream is enjoying life again at Craven Cottage having almost disappeared from view under the previous regime. He has certainly justified his inclusion at the start of the season ahead of the likes of Alfie Mawson, Michael Hector and Terence Kongolo. He has forged a strong partnership at the heart of the back four with Tosin Adarabioyo and his engagement with the Fulham fanbase on social media regularly brings a smile and some insight into both the American’s dry sense of humour and the hidden world of professional football.

He also presides reassurance at the back having been there, seen it and done in the second tier before. Ream has ground his way through two successful promotion campaigns and has a wealth of experience at this level. He’s experienced enough to be aware of his limitations, as evidenced in those largely self-effacing social media posts, and has been a steadying influence as Fulham reacclimatised themselves to the heady world of the Championship. Whilst the Whites look formidable going forward, Ream has been part of a defence that has only conceded eighteen league goals to date – as well as memorably getting on the scoresheet himself at Preston.

Ream’s partnership with Tosin works effectively for Fulham. The 34 year-old’s reading of the game is exemplary and compensates for a lack of pace, whilst his distribution allows him to step out from the back at times and begin attacks. A much-loved figure at Craven Cottage, it is brilliant to see him with a smile on his face once again after a difficult season on the fringes of a struggling side – as he referenced in an open interview at the start of the campaign. Let’s hope he hears that roar of ‘Reeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaam’ echoing down by the banks of the Thames as he receives possession for some time to come.