Saturday's game takes centre stage as the first Championship fixture to take place since the suspension of the season due to the coronavirus outbreak back in March. How have the past few months been for Fulham?
Very, very strange - as they have been for everyone. Fulham had hit a bit of form when football suddenly came to a halt. Without knowing when they’d be back in action, the players had to maintain a fitness programme, but I’m told they’ve returned to training in good shape and are raring to go for the remaining nine games.
With just nine games of the season remaining, Fulham sit third and look to be in a great position for an immediate return to the Premier League. How would you summarise this season to date?
Inconsistent. There have been some excellent performances and results but, just when you expect Fulham to kick on, they’ve suffered a setback. That said, aside from a shock 3-0 home defeat to struggling Barnsley in January, Fulham’s form since the turn of the year has been much improved. If they can hold their nerve between now and July, we could be in for a very interesting end to the season.
When Scott Parker took over last year, top-flight relegation was almost a certainty, but one would imagine it’s been a lot more enjoyable this time around. What have you made of his first full season in management?
It’s been a work-in-progress. When he took over from Claudio Ranieri on a caretaker basis, morale was low and a return to the Championship was looking more than likely. Once appointed permanently in the summer, he needed to change the mindset of a squad that were used to losing games into one with a winning mentality. At the same time, he was keen to implement his own style of play; building from the back and wearing teams down with a possession-based game. It’s not a million miles away from the philosophy Slavisa Jokanovic employed at Fulham, a man Parker both played and coached under. There have been a few teething problems, particularly with defensive mistakes, but they’ve mixed it up a bit as the season has progressed, sometimes going a bit longer to try and get in behind teams that camp men behind the ball.
Ahead of today’s west London derby clash, his side are six points off second-placed West Brom. Do you think automatic promotion is still within reach?
Definitely. As the cliché goes, anyone can beat anyone in this league and there are likely to be plenty more twists and turns before the season is out. It’s going to be a weird scenario playing in empty stadiums but if Fulham can hit the ground running, they’ll have a very good chance of closing in on the top two.
As has been the case for the past couple of seasons, Aleksandar Mitrovic has been Fulham’s talisman, with 23 goals so far this term. That said, do you think there’s an over-reliance on the 25-year-old?
Possibly. But when a player’s that good, you’re going to look to him to be your focal point. He just brings so much to the team and he’s a menace for opposition defenders. He’s strong, he holds the ball up to bring others into play and clearly knows where the goal is. The Fulham fans adore him. He is the main man but, that said, Fulham still did well when he was injured earlier in the season. Players like Bobby Decordova-Reid, Ivan Cavaleiro and Aboubakar Kamara are more than capable of finding the net if Mitrovic is having an off-day.
Mitrovic aside, which player should Brentford fans be keeping an eye out for at Craven Cottage?
Tom Cairney was hitting his stride at just the right time prior to lockdown. He got his eighth goal of the season with the equaliser at Bristol City and Parker was full of praise for his captain afterwards. I’ve been really impressed by Michael Hector, too. He signed from Chelsea after the summer transfer window closed so couldn’t play until January but showed no signs of rustiness. He’s a class act - composed, vocal, tough in the tackle and has a good range of passing. He’s known as ‘Virgil Van Mike’ by the Fulham faithful and it’s no coincidence that his introduction has seen the Whites keep several clean sheets. Behind him, Marek Rodak has shone in goal. He’s still only 23 but has saved Fulham on a number of occasions this term.
How are Fulham likely to set up?
Parker tends to favour a 4-3-3 formation, with Mitrovic flanked by two from Decordova-Reid, Cavaleiro, Anthony Knockaert or Kamara. Decordova-Reid can also operate in a deeper role so could feature in the middle of the park. The full-backs are given licence to get forward and join the attack, and Joe Bryan’s return from a hamstring injury is a major plus. In fact, several players - including Harrison Reed and ex-Brentford man Alfie Mawson - who would have been absent for the original game are now fit and available.
What’s your score prediction for the game?
It’s a really tough one to call in what will be a very peculiar environment. It might have the feel of a pre-season friendly initially as the players get back up to speed. With the goal threat of both teams I can’t see it being a 0-0 draw. I really like the look of Ollie Watkins when I’ve seen him play and Said Benrahma’s pace could also cause problems. That said, I’m going to go for a 2-1 win for Fulham.