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Neeskens Kebano: Fulham’s king on the wing

Neeskens Kebano wasn’t exactly a household name when he joined Fulham in 2016. Football fans are now understandably wary of a well-put together Youtube highlight reel that can make anyone appear a world beater, but there is something about a tricky little winger that gets the pulse racing. The Congolese winger had a promising debut just days after arriving at Blackburn and contributed crucial goals as the Whites climbed the table in the second half of the season under Slavisa Jokanovic, but could never nail down a place in the side.

He had almost drifted out of the picture entirely when his energy, drive and some sensational free-kicks enlivened Fulham’s run to – and, indeed, through the Championship play-offs. His reward for injecting some life in what was a pretty predictable side was scant, though, becoming one of those laudable club servants who were jettisoned during another dismal Premier League campaign. Kebano ended the season on loan at Middlesbrough and you could have been forgiven for thinking the likeable winger’s Fulham career was over.

There’s no greater indication of the fact that Marco Silva offered a clean slate for everyone that the way Kebano has gradually become one of the key components of this adventurous side. He started the season in the side as injuries denied Fulham the services of some key players and a brilliant display at Millwall showed that he had the potential to deliver at this level. If there was ever any doubt about his value, Kebano proved he is more than just flicks and tricks on his way to terrorising countless full backs and seizing his chance to impress after Ivan Cavaleiro got injured.

It isn’t fanciful to suggest that a former Fulham favourite might have also helped this revival. Luis Boa Morte was also a character who added pace and excitement to a very watchable Whites side from the wide positions. A left winger by trade, Boa Morte is now Silva’s number two at Craven Cottage and it isn’t difficult to discern his own influence on Kebano’s more consistent displays. Where we once wondered about an end product, the Congolese winger has added four goals and five assists already – just two goals short of his best scoring return for Fulham, which came in his very first season by the Thames.

Such is the scale of the turnaround that Kebano has become one of the first names on Silva’s teamsheet. He is revelling in the freedom to express himself in a Fulham side that looks frightening each time they go forward and, should he stay injury free, there’s no reason why the cheeky chappy can’t put together a season to remember.

How Fulham bounced back from Coventry calamity

Cast your mind back to the beginning of October. After Fulham’s second half capitulation at Coventry, you didn’t have to spend too long on social media or across the various internet message boards to find Fulham fans wondering whether Marco Silva was the right man to take the Whites back to the top flight. The fragility that had undermined Fulham’s last season in the Premier League – and surfaced in worrying defeats by Blackpool and Reading – had resurfaced. Fulham had a soft underbelly, the balance wasn’t right and the head coach himself looked a bit blindsided after Coventry had scored four goals in fourteen minutes.

The grumbles weren’t restricted to that performance. Silva had gone his team selection wrong, dropping Tosin Adarabioyo and Jean Michael Seri before the international break against a side who were flying at home. Perhaps he didn’t understand the intensity of the Championship, having never before managed in England’s second tier. The man himself made clear his discontent in a caustic interview with the club’s official website after the final whistle, when his visceral anger at his side’s failure to carry out his half-time instructions carried through the camera. He pledged to put it right – and how he did.

Nobody outside Fulham’s tight-knit unit will know precisely what Silva and his coaching staff put their charges through during the international break that followed that forgettable trip to Coventry, but there can be no doubt that a few home truths were told. The fixtures after the fortnight off weren’t exactly kind either. I was worried about the prospect of playing Queens Park Rangers, buoyed by a brilliant start to the season under Mark Warburton and with Stefan Johansen returning to Craven Cottage. Would the Whites – who wilted under pressure from the Sky Blues – be up for the cut and thrust of a local derby?

They delivered the most emphatic of answers. Silva’s decision to return to Marek Rodak between the sticks after Paolo Gazzaniga had gifted Coventry a route back into the previous contest was decisive – with the Slovakian’s sensational form coinciding with Fulham’s resurgence. The defence appears much more comfortable with him in goal, he commands the penalty area far more convincingly than the Argentine and isn’t averse to berating his back four when it needs doing. At the other end of the pitch, Aleksandar Mitrovic started a six-game scoring streak that has similarly powered Fulham’s progress and Silva’s progressive passing football was no longer dogged by errors in either penalty area.

The squad went from strength to strength after coming through the adversity of Lyndon Dykes’ second half equaliser. Harrison Reed’s cajoling of his team-mates in the aftermath of that setback was significant. Silva highlighted his side’s character to go on and put QPR to the sword. Fulham had to show patience against a dogged Cardiff side, with Tom Cairney’s return from a frustrating year on the sidelines to lash in the opener almost written in the stars. The sight of the skipper close to tears in front of an adoring Hammersmith End will remain with everyone who witnessed such a special moment.

Mitrovic demonstrated his predatory instincts once again after Cardiff failed to clear their lines and another important three points were in the bag. Perhaps Silva’s biggest achievement has been rejuvenating the big Serbian, who looked destined to leave SW6 in the summer having been frozen out by Scott Parker as the Whites went down with a whimper. All the talk suggests that Mitrovic is merely a Championship-level poacher, but that ignores both the fact that he netted eleven times in Fulham’s dreadful 2018/2019 campaign and that he is fulfilling a far more prominent role in Silva’s side. This is almost an entirely different Mitrovic: he looks leaner, hungrier and leads the press from the front – something both Parker and Rafa Benitez proclaimed he was ill-suited for. Like a prime-Bobby Zamora, Mitrovic now drops deep to link the play with deft touches and flick ons, even spraying a sensational 40 yard ball for Harry Wilson’s opening goal at Blackburn. The tabloids claimed over the weekend that his pay packet may reach ¬£100,000-a-week: but, having scored 20 goals at an astonishing rate, he’s definitely worth every penny. Mitrovic and Fulham could well be in for a record breaking season.

I have felt since the start of the season, viewing the style and openness that Silva imbued upon his new side, that Fulham would give someone a battering before long. Huddersfield felt the sting of our forward line on that first August away day, but poor old Blackburn were on the receiving end of their worst-ever home defeat in midweek. Previous Fulham sides, particularly one managed by the risk-averse Parker, might have sat back on a two-goal cushion but Silva wants his Whites to be relentless. The most pleasing element of that sublime showing was the fact that the goals were shared around, with two great finishes late on from Rodrigo Muniz following a brilliant brace from Neeskens Kebano, who is finally getting a regular run in the first team. The joyous celebrations between Muniz and Mitrovic after the final whistle at Ewood Park emphasised the fantastic camaraderie in the camp.

The win at London Road yesterday was almost more pleasing than the seven-goal romp in Lancashire. Peterborough United were more than just plucky hosts: they stuck diligently to a clever gameplan and grew in confidence as they had some joy on the counter attack. Darren Ferguson’s side might have mustered three or four goals, with Rodak’s resistance proving vital to the kind of gritty win that is the hallmark of a successful Championship campaign. Fulham will play far better than that, but those slender victories are worth their weight in gold in such a topsy-turvy division.

Silva, who spoke of the need to remain humble in the wake of the huge Blackburn victory, won’t allow his players to rest on their laurels. They have Bournemouth in their sights ahead of Scott Parker’s return to the Cottage in December. Whilst everyone wants to reel in the Cherries, the Whites have now opened up a six-point gap on West Bromwich Albion, who are stuttering somewhat after an excellent start. The cushion is closer to seven points when you factor in Fulham’s absurd +30 goal difference. If the Whites can maintain this new-found consistency, then a swift return to the top flight may be just around the corner.

Where do Fulham stand at the end of September?

Fulham’s fine victory over Swansea City in midweek lifted the Whites back to third in the table and took us to the ten game mark in the Championship, where perceptive pundits believe you can make an assessment about where teams might finish. Marco Silva’s start defies a simple summary really, but I thought it was time to take stock of the up and downs by the River Thames so far.

The first observation is a further straightforward one but it is bears repeating: it is so great to be able to attend games in person again. I was one of the travelling fans at Ashton Gate and loved the Mitrovic show on Wednesday night. Away days are back and that’s wonderful, while there’s nothing quite like being at Craven Cottage under the lights. After the desolation of empty stadiums and watching football from home whilst working from home too, being back in stadiums still gives me a real lift.

If we were writing a report card on Fulham’s first two months, I think it would conclude with that familiar teaching clich√©: ‘could do better’. That’s largely because Silva’s side have been maddeningly inconsistent of late. The opening weekend draw with Middlesbrough has encapsulated the frustrating elements of our season so far: comfortably in control of a game but letting three points slip away in the latter stages by not being clinical. We have struggled to break down a low block as the season as gone on and our finishing can leave an awful lot to be desire – the games against Reading and Bristol City demonstrated this clearly.

You still have a sense that Silva hasn’t quite got the balance right in midfield. Much of that might be caused by the absence of Fabio Carvalho, who started the season so sensationally, and we certainly miss a dynamic number ten. Jean-Michael Seri’s redemption has been the big surprise to date and while the Ivorian’s ability makes him a cut above technically at this level, deploying him as the deepest-lying midfielder does seem fraught with danger. He can still lose the man he’s meant to be tracking or let someone drift past him too easily, as happened at Bloomfield Road.

There’s still a big debate raging about who should be in goal, although not with the man that matters. Silva has stuck by Paulo Gazzaniga and, while he has flapped at a few crosses and looked a little shaky when the ball has been played back to him, I feel the Argentine has done a decent job. He pulled off a couple of fine saves at Bristol City and, if the assistant referee had utilised his flag correctly, would have been lauded for a brilliant stop from Chris Martin before Kasey Palmer was able to tuck home the rebound.

Fulham have looked irresistible going forward at times, handing out a couple of drubbings, and when Silva’s side hit top gear it seems like nobody can live with them. The performance at Huddersfield on that very first August away day showed what the Whites can do. Despite being down to ten men late on, where in the past we would have very definitely shut up down, Silva sent on another attacker and Ivan Cavaleiro added two goals to seal a comprehensive victory. Fulham looked just as devastating in the early stages at Millwall, but couldn’t put the game to bed and were left clinging on after Benik Afobe’s bizarre late strike.

There can be no doubting that the last international break severely disrupted Fulham’s rhythm and Carvalho’s toe problem robbed the side of its most exhilarating performance. In the teenager’s absence, Silva has tried a number of different options in the number ten position – but none have seized their opportunity. The proven performer in Tom Cairney remains sidelined with knee problems and the alternatives have been scratchy at best. Domingos Quina is still adapting to his new surroundings and Fulham’s style, which is why it was a surprise to see him start at Bloomfield Road. You can never fault Bobby Decordova-Reid’s effort but he hasn’t flourished behind the striker this term and seems to be struggling in front of goal. Josh Onomah had an excellent start to the season but isn’t a natural 10 himself. Fulham have sorely missed the energy and vision of our gifted academy graduate, so hopefully Carvalho will be available for selection for the local derby with QPR as Silva has hinted at.

The head coach has to take some of the blame for not trusting the depth in his squad ahead of that Blackpool defeat, given that so many key players were coming back late from international duty. Fulham looked understandably lethargic but delivered the perfect response at Birmingham, even if the performance wasn’t as the dominant as the eventual 4-1 scoreline suggested. There might be a mentality thing at play here: when the Whites go ahead early, they are usually able to pick up points but they have yet to come up with an answer after going behind. Against sides like Blackpool and Reading, who are content to sit in and use that low block to stifle Fulham’s creativity, Silva’s charges seem somewhat stumped. If they want to make an immediate return to the top flight, the head coach and his technical staff will need to find a solution – as they will face such an approach with increasingly regularity.

Despite only getting a point at Bristol City, I wasn’t too disheartened with what I saw at Ashton Gate. We battered them and created countless chances to win the game – rather like the reverse to Reading. It would be much more worrying if Fulham were failing to create scoring opportunities, whilst the openings are coming, you always feel the goals will arrive too. I can’t remember the last game I saw Fulham hit the bar three times and confirmation that our luck was truly out came when Palmer’s equaliser was allowed to stand.

There was some criticism of Mitrovic’s failure to grab all three points in Bristol, but Wednesday night was all about the superb Serbian striker. His first goal might have proved the old adage about decisions evening themselves out as he looked offside from Tim Ream’s header, but he took it exceptionally well. His clever movement quickly doubled the lead with a sharp finish and the third goal was a joy to watch. The flowing team move from the back was reminiscent of how Slavisa Jokanovic’s promotion winners would play through their opponents and Mitrovic finished with real authority. That kind of football is what Silva is searching for and if they can produce that level of quality consistently, I’m confident the Whites will remain to top of the table – and perhaps even pull away.

It is important to back up that victory with another three points at Coventry tomorrow lunchtime, although that will be easier said than done. The Sky Blues have been sensational back on home turf this season and Mark Robins will have worked them extra hard in the two days since a surprising 5-0 thumping at Luton. Ending their 100% start at home would be a real statement.

Pulling in the same direction

Fulham love a late transfer window. True to form, this week was no difference. Marco Silva might have persuaded the club to carry out early transfer business soon after his appointment but the Whites were active until the very end as well. More than an hour after the window had slammed shut came the confirmation that Watford duo Nathaniel Chalobah and Domingos Quina joined the Whites. You feel that Chalobah, once capped by Gareth Southgate at senior international level, might well be a bargain – especially as the Athletic this morning has reported he was a free transfer – whilst Quina, an exciting attacking option, provides cover for the injured Tom Cairney and the promising Fabio Carvalho.

What is most impressive about the window as a whole is it feels as though the manager not only has a significant say in Fulham’s recruitment, but he is also getting what he wants. Having been used to the likes of Slavisa Jokanovic and Scott Parker disavowing themselves of responsibility for the club’s transfer strategy, this makes for a refreshing change. The precise nature of who ticks what box when it comes to a new signing remains unclear but if the club hierarchy are all pulling in the same direction that can only be a good thing. It certainly gives Silva the resources he requires to continue Fulham’s fantastic start to the Championship season.

It was no secret that Silva sought reinforcements in the middle of the park, even before Andre Frank Zambo Anguissa finalised his loan move to Napoli. Even that deal had a surprise within it – the activation of the option to extend the Cameroonian international’s contract served to give the club more headroom under financial fair play, a key consideration given the tightness of that particular position, as well as preserving the possibility of another Premier League return. More depth at right back was also an objective, although this didn’t come off. The head coach sought a stand-in for Kenny Tete, but Davide Santon rejected a loan move to SW6 and Emile Krafth wasn’t enamoured with the idea of dropping out of the top flight. It has emerged that Fulham were very close to capturing Reggie Cannon right at the end of the window, but that particular deal run out of time.

It is hard to disagree with the prevailing view that this was an excellent window for Fulham. Silva held sway throughout – making clear what targets were towards the top of his list and the Khans and Alistair Mackintosh secured most of them. Perhaps the most striking example of this was Rodrigo Muniz, a young Brazilian forward that Silva has watched for sometime. The deal with Flamengo was drawn out and appeared dead on a number of occasions, but Fulham preserved and got their man. A tantalising if raw prospect now offers something different to Aleksandar Mitrovic up front – and where the Whites were now light on striking alternatives, they now have Jay Stansfield – scoring of a stunning first senior goal earlier this month – and Muniz as options off the bench. If the Brazilian turns out to be half the player that Richarlison became under Silva, it will prove a remarkable deal.

It seems odd now to remember just how dark the shadow was looming over the club earlier this summer. The expectation was that Mitrovic would be one of a number of senior first-team players searching for pastures new had Parker remained in charge. The Fulham hierarchy held firm in their discussions with their now former manager, insisting that a wholesale revamp of the squad was not necessary and that Mitrovic – who clearly had a difference of opinion with Parker last season – could prove vital in the Championship. Parker’s own protracted departure allowed Fulham to start afresh and Shad Khan acted decisively to bring in Silva, whose hunger to prove he can manage in England worked in Fulham’s favour. We’ll never know what assurances the new boss was given prior to taking over at Craven Cottage but the current harmony between all the key players behind the scenes is a refreshing change.

Managers are ultimately judged by results over anything else and Silva has enjoyed a serene start. Only the Middlesbrough draw was a disappointment but since then Fulham have soon a ruthlessness that had been sorely lacking over the past two seasons. The fact that Whites are now playing with serious style and starting matches on the front foot only adds to the impression that there has been a sea change in SW6 over the summer. You get the sense there’s plenty to come as well.

Tom Cairney and the captaincy question

Marco Silva’s press conference on Friday had a number of juicy titbits in it – including the suggestion that Tom Cairney could be close to a return to training. We’ve been waiting nine months for Fulham’s premier playmaker to shake off his troublesome knee injuries and have already been through a few false dawns. Some have speculated that our number ten is no longer an automatic pick given how seamlessly Fabio Carvalho has taken to senior football, whilst others wonder whether the captain’s armband should remain his.

There’s no doubt about his talismanic ability, but Cairney is certainly more of a leader by example than a leader of men. He’s the only Fulham captain to have led the Whites out onto the Wembley turf three times and has written his name into Fulham folklore after those two memorable play-off final victories. His ability with the ball at his feet is unquestionable as well. Cairney was the creative force in Slavisa Jokanovic’s stylish side that swaggered their way to 23 matches unbeaten when the prospect of the Championship play-offs he eventually won so memorably against Aston Villa appeared particularly remote. The emotion in his television interview after that final laid bare his struggles with chronic knee problems – and without those injury clouds it isn’t too fanciful to suggest he might have firmly established himself in the top flight, or at least, become a regular feature in the Scottish national side.

Cairney’s never quite cracked the Premier League, but he is in a class of his own in the Championship. His wonderful left foot means opponents often have to put two men on him just to reduce his influence and ability to retain possession. There’s no doubt the quiet midfielder has grown in stature since taking on the captaincy from Scott Parker and his longevity in a time of constant change at Fulham has to applauded. His 212 appearances put him pretty high on the club’s all-time list – and Cairney’s Championship numbers are simply incredible: 152 games, 34 goals and 47 assists denote just how pivotal a performer he has been in several Craven Cottage sides.

Cairney might not be a conventional captain in the blood and thunder, bawl them out mould, but he’s earned his leadership credentials through an old-fashioned work ethic and letting his football do the talking. He can run a game with his feet rather than his voice and those qualities have been recognised by successive managers, from Jokanovic to Ranieri and right through to Parker. He does face arguably his toughest challenge after a prolonged period on the sidelines: first to prove his fitness on the training pitches and remain healthy long enough to mount a sustained challenge to the starting line-up in an area of the field where Fulham suddenly look very strong. Carvalho has yet to put a foot wrong in a series of mature displays and the re-emergence of Jean Michael Seri might even push Cairney down the pecking order in the deeper midfield role he sometimes occupied under Parker.

Silva will eventually have to make a difficult call on the future of Cairney’s Fulham career. The peerless passer has made no secret of the fact that the best football of his career has come by the banks of the Thames, but there must be a question mark over whether he can return to that sort of level. Does he still possess the ability to turn a game in the blink of an eye? Is he the sort of on-field leader than Silva wants? Tim Ream has done a terrific job as an understated skipper in Cairney’s absence and the American appears to be enjoying a new lease of life under the club’s new regime. He’s even embraced social media with a zeal that has surprised plenty, suggesting that he sees his role as helping to repair the relationship between the fans and the club.

It goes without saying that we hope the next few weeks go well for Cairney. He’s just got engaged and seems settled in London. His contributions to Fulham’s fortunes since he arrived from Blackburn in what looks an absolute bargain of a deal these days already make him a bona fide Fulham legend. If he could reach the heights of those Jokanovic campaigns at the heart of the Fulham midfield, then the potential for Silva’s side would appear limitless. Cairney himself hasn’t given up on the prospect of resurrecting his Fulham career and, as one brilliant former manager so memorably implored in his programme notes, now’s the time to keep the faith.