Top seven. Last eight. One manager and two player of the month nominations. It’s been quite the week for Fulham, and with a derby set to bookend it, there could yet be another reason to celebrate.
Positivity is high in SW6 and with good reason, following the win over Leeds that saw the club progress the furthest they have in the FA Cup since 2010. Before the draw was made, there were only three possible opponents that share a place in English footballs top tier with The Whites, and only two that occupy a place above them, so of course an away tie with Manchester United was the result. But in a season when overachievement and surprise have been the overriding theme, there’s every reason to believe that the cup run won’t end at Old Trafford.
The stats show that Fulham haven’t fared well against teams above them in the league, and The Red Devils are just that. But this will not be a league game, and in each of the games against the established elite of English football, Marco Silva’s team have always held their own. Single-goal defeats to Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham, as well as the upcoming quarter-final opponents show that The Cottagers are not far away from turning over one of the big boys that isn’t having a season of significant under-performance.
Indeed, when United visited The Cottage immediately before the World Cup break there was a sense of genuine disappointment that The Whites had not taken something from the game, having more than matched their more fancied opposition. However, the red side of Manchester has improved since then and are the one of only three teams to have taken more points since the return to domestic action than Fulham. All of those teams make up the Premier League’s top three, such is the form of Marco Silva’s side over their last ten games. Eric Ten Hag has also secured Manchester United’s first trophy for six years. This is a more daunting task than it may have been earlier in the season, but Fulham have only accrued three points less in the same number of games since the World Cup.
When The Whites were dealt that cruel blow by Alejandro Garnacho, they were without their leading man, Aleksandar Mitrovic. Without a goal since 3rd January, it would appear that Mitro is not presently on fire. But even in a period in which the star striker has had to sit out with injury, and had a disrupted return from World Cup duty, the team has continued to pick up points and maintain their lofty league position. If Mitro has not been on fire, then Manor certainly has. Despite not starting a league game, Manor Solomon has scored in his last three, and added a fourth in as many matches with a doppelgänger for his Wolves effort to help The Cottagers progress to within one win of a trip to Wembley. And as it has been whenever Fulham have missed the Serbian, someone has stepped up.
When he couldn’t welcome Chelsea to The Cottage, Carlos Vinicius wrote his name into FFC lore, and when he couldn’t make the trip to Brighton, Solomon made the difference. The Israeli international has shown real quality, and has made a big impact since returning to fitness following his unfortunate start to life in West London. But for all the credit the winger is rightfully receiving for his goal scoring exploits and mesmerising dribbling skills, as much has to be said for the groundwork that has enabled him to flourish so quickly. It is significantly easier to gel with a team that is performing well and where everyone is comfortable and confident in their roles. The credit for that has to go to Silva and his coaching staff.
The majority of new recruits have settled well, and slotted in seamlessly to a team that has had momentum since the start of the last season. You only have to look down the road to see that just signing players of quality does not guarantee they will adapt immediately. Players have an impact when they are dropped into an already thriving unit, that is what has happened with Solomon across the last four matches, and with Mitrovic returning against Leeds and looking something more like the handful fans are familiar with, there is optimism that he can catch a blaze again. Monday would be a great time to do just that, and hopefully the injury niggles are now in his rear view mirror and the no.9 can go on to better the 11 goals he has scored this season, currently matching his best Premier League total from what was a very different season in 2018/19.
One player Fulham haven’t been able to replace this season in Joao Palhinha. The one time Marco Silva has had to field an XI without the Portuguese enforcer, Fulham succumbed to a 4-1 defeat to Newcastle, as the former Sporting man’s replacement received his marching orders inside eight minutes. Nathaniel Chalobah has since moved on, and Sasa Lukic has arrived, suggesting that Fulham are better equipped to cope with the leagues top tackler absence for the next two fixtures. What that looks like in reality remains to be seen, but Lukic has shown that the quality is there, even if his introduction to the starting XI at Premier League intensity feels a little premature.
The hope now though, is that Fulham can cope without Palhinha the way they have adapted to playing without Mitrovic. Harrison Reed will likely partner Lukic, and revert to his old role at the base of the midfield, with Lukic filling the less restricted role that Reed has played since Silva partnered him with Jean Michel Seri and later Chalobah, last season. While not as physically imposing as Palhinha, Reed has shown that he has the energy to match his team mates tackling and desire to win the ball back for his team. If Reed can do that, the possibilities for a high finishing position increase dramatically. There is more intrigue as to what Lukic can bring. A bit of an unknown commodity having made just three appearances and only one start since his arrival on January’s deadline day, it will be important that he settles as quickly as Palhinha, Andreas Pereira and, more recently, Solomon has.
Palhinha will of course be back for the trip to Old Trafford, well rested and raring to go. The same may not be the case for the hosts, as they will be less than 72-hours removed from playing Real Betis in Seville, in the Europa League. The conditions are there for a cup upset, Silva and his team just need to take advantage of them.