Fulham’s next five games will go a long way to defining the season. Survival was always the target following The Cottagers return to the top flight, though results through the first half of the season has seen those connected with the club aiming higher. A top half finish? European qualification? Both are possible, and it would take a monumental drop in form for The Whites’ return to the top flight to end after just one campaign. But the reality is that the next four weeks will be make or break for those more ambitious targets.
Avoiding relegation accompanied by a home win over Chelsea and avoiding defeat at Stamford Bridge is enough for any Fulham fan during a first season back at this level, but the manner in which Marco Silva’s team continue to go about their business makes it impossible not to rank this squad as one of most enjoyable to follow, in the clubs history. If scoring their way to The Championship title last season was not enough, there has been plenty to relish in the first 22 games of the 22/23 edition. Much of what fans love about this team was encapsulated by Kenny Tete on Friday night.
Tete was a defensive machine down the road from Craven Cottage, seeing off in excess of £150m worth of wingers. But his performance was by no means all about his contributions in and around his own box. In addition to winning ten of his 12 duels, and not being dribbled past once, Tete made a key pass, was successful on both of his dribbles and attempted seven crosses into the opposition box. He also won six free-kicks, showing that he just as difficult to dispossess as he is to retain possession against.
Tete’s work ethic, coupled with his undeniable quality is what this team is all about. On a night when Reece James returned to try to help save Chelsea’s season, it was his opposite right-back who stole the show. But his showing on the Fulham Road was nothing new. Before arriving in West London he was known for shackling Neymar, and this season the Dutchman has amassed a 96% success rate for tackling, while contributing four assists across his 16 appearances. Against the same opponents at Craven Cottage he made decisive interventions, and anyone who was there will remember his sliding challenge to stop Harvey Barnes going through on goal at The King Power Stadium earlier this year.
It would be remiss of me not to mention others that continued to show the level of performance that has raised the optimism to dizzying heights in SW6. Willian continues to belie his years as much as Tim Ream does his pre-season doubters. Joao Palhinha remains the dominant midfielder in every game he plays and Harrison Reed consistently sets the tempo for the team with his energy and pressing in the centre of the park. Aleksandar Mitrovic didn’t have his best showing, but such is the strength of the team, that an off-day for the Serb does not spell disaster the way it has in the past.
Taking a point from Stamford Bridge keeps Fulham very much in touch with the top six, but the continued form of both Brighton and Brentford, as well as the expectation that the likes of Liverpool and Chelsea will eventually start to perform means that finishing in the European places still looks a tough task. Silva’s squad have shown repeatedly that they are up to the task, and they will need to be just that over the course of the next month. Three of the next four opponents have already been beaten this season, while Wolverhampton Wanderers were a penalty save away from defeat at Molineux on game week two.
The Whites got the better of both The Seagulls and The Bees at Craven Cottage, but they now sit just below both in the table ahead of what will be difficult away fixtures at The Amex and Gtech Community Stadium. Repeating the trick on enemy territory will send a very strong message that Fulham are serious contenders for a European tour. However defeats would make it a tall order to usurp our competitors in the run in. And if Fulham are to contend for a top seven place, then home games against the likes of Nottingham Forest and Wolves should return close to maximum points. Following these fixtures is the prospect of welcoming league leaders Arsenal, then a trip to less intimidating Anfield than has existed in the past. It’s also a ground that delivered one of the few highs of our last tilt at the top flight but a low points return from those two fixtures would not be a shock, so it’s important that following three league games without a win, The Whites take a healthy return from the coming Premier League fixtures.
Of course, there could be another route to Europe, via The FA Cup. First Silva and his team have to navigate a tricky replay in the North-East, but the reward is a home tie against a struggling Leeds side. Come through those two tests and Fulham will certainly be in the midst of a good cup run, two wins from another trip to Wembley.
A lot will have to go wrong for the Fulham Faithful to consider this season anything less than a success, but the size of that success is still to be determined, and the next four weeks will be significant in deciding just how memorable both Silva’s and The Cottagers return to the Premier League is.