There are few things less forgiving than the Premier League, but one of them is 50/50 with Joao Palhinha. The Portuguese enforcer won Fulham fans over in preseason with his uncompromising style, and now, 15 games into the Premier League season, the rest of the footballing world is starting realise that there is a special player in Marco Silva’s side.
Palhinha’s performances have typified The Whites in this first part of the season, and the climax of this portion of the campaign was the defensive midfielders definitive display so far. His nine tackles was a single-game high for the league this term, and he leads the division for overall successful duels. The Cottagers have been intense and combative all season, taking the competition by surprise with their ambitious approach, where opposition is respected but never feared.
Despite the positives from the performance against Manchester United, it ultimately ended in defeat as we head into an extended break for the domestic top flight. Palhinha will be representing Portugal in Qatar, while Aleksandar Mitrovic, Antonee Robinson, Tim Ream, Harry Wilson and the weekend’s goalscorer, Dan James, play for their respective nations. This interval for club football was always going to serve as a marker for how the season was shaping up, especially for clubs with survival on their minds. There can be no denying that the summer signing from Sporting has had a big impact on Fulham’s surge into the top half of the table.
In years gone by, London’s original club has struggled to establish a winning style in the Premier League, but under Silva and with some smart additions such as Andreas Pereira, Willian and Palhinha, Fulham look more like a top flight side than they have for the best part of 10 years. The World Cup will provide a bigger shop window for the likes of Palhinha, but with him tied to a long term contract, it will take an eye-watering offer for Tony Khan to even consider parting ways with such a premium asset. For now his growing list of admirers will have to continue to do so from afar.
It’s been an extremely fruitful first 15 fixtures, returning 19 points amassed with five wins. And while it’s easy to feel disappointed with how the most recent contests have ended, and it feels like points have been dropped, Fulham have won the games that matter for the most part. There can’t be many, if any, fans that wouldn’t have taken the current state of play if offered it before the season opener. With more than half the season to go, the squad that has managed to accrue at least half the points required to do what the previous two groups have failed to do at this level.
While some signings have hit the ground running, there are those who joined later in the summer window that are to yet fully settle. The impending break should provide Silva and his staff the perfect opportunity to get his less familiar charges up to speed. Kevin Mbabu has had a difficult start to his return to English football, and as a result has missed out on selection with Switzerland for the showpiece in the Middle East. The time with his relatively new team mates and coaches could be just the opportunity he needs to establish himself in SW6. Layvin Kurzawa might also benefit from an extended period of training and potential game time in the arranged friendlies following a stuttering start. The same can be said of Manor Solomon, who’s season was interrupted before it really started. There have been suggestions he will be available for the restart against Crystal Palace on Boxing Day. It remains to be seen if he is able to get some minutes under his belt before the competitive action begins again.
Silva will know that another fast start will be needed, and the momentum built up in this first portion of the season carried through if his side are to keep up their impressive performances. How he and his staff utilise this time will be crucial in ensuring that occurs, with the remaining members of the squad being given a two-week break before spending a week in Portugal and then returning to Motspur Park ahead of a friendly with West Ham United at The Cottage. Meanwhile the hope will be that the likes of Palhinha and Mitrovic return in shape to maintain the positive atmosphere around the club.
The Serbian forward has been absent for the last two games of the first part of the season, but with him set to play a key role for his country, the hope will be that the injury he has been nursing for the last six weeks is close to recovery, and won’t be compromised by his participation in Qatar. Meanwhile Wilson has returned from the injury that has caused him to miss a significant chunk of the season so far, and may benefit from getting some more competitive minutes under his belt with Wales, having yet to hit the heights of last season on his return to the Premier League. Fans will be able to keep a close eye on his and countryman Dan James’ exploits along with Antonee Robinson and Tim Ream of The USA, as they go head to head with each other as well as England in Group B.
If the club are to achieve or even exceed the target of staying up, it will need more games like the most recent from Palhinha, and for the entire squad to continue to show they belong at this level. Act one has been positive but act two will ultimately determine if the club remain among the nations elite clubs. In Palhinha, they certainly have a player who belongs there.