Marco Silva’s Fulham can be compared to a heavyweight boxer. Matches can be cagey, but at any moment, they have the ability to land game-changing blows to an opponent that end the contest, almost in an instant.
On Sunday, The City Ground in Nottingham hosted The Whites’ latest prize fight, and the baying crowd in the lower tier of the Bridgford Stand, got just the devastating result they craved. After the cagey opening, in which both sides probed but ultimately failed to land any significant blows on one another, Fulham took advantage of a breach in the Forest defence and unleashed a devastating combo that effectively rendered the home side unconscious in ten rampaging second-half minutes.
Leading 1-0 at half time, the concourse behind the block housing the travelling support was one of satisfaction, yet uncertainty. It felt eerily similar to Coventry. Both sides had threatened to create an opening, but as yet had not really forced the issue. An own goal from a set-piece separated the sides just like it did 50-odd miles away at the start of the month. The game was still there to be won, and it would come down to who could land the telling punches in the second half. That’s the trouble with The Championship. Much like the heavyweight division of boxing, even the less talented opposition possess the artillery to cause an upset if the favourites don’t keep their hands up. Just see the trip to Blackpool last month.
And that was a principle worry when the line ups were announced and it was revealed that Tom Cairney, who every Whites fan is happy to see back, was set to play in a midfield three with Bobby Decordova-Reid and Jean Michael Seri. All three players have their attributes that they bring to the side, but it is not their defensive qualities for which they are most renowned. With Harrison Reed only fit enough for the bench, the concern was that Fulham had a soft underbelly, and would be vulnerable when not in possession.
Those fears were allayed, and with a disciplined approach from the wide players and fullbacks, Fulham offered very little in the way of openings for the home side. Antonee Robinson continues to have frustrating moments in possession, but his defensive awareness and timing should not be overlooked. It’s also worth noting that simply by having such devastating pace, opposition wingers and fullbacks are reticent to push too far forward for fear of being caught out at the other end. Denis Odoi has always been a more defensively focussed fullback, and in a team that needed to supplement for less aggression in the middle of the pitch, he fulfilled his duties well.
For all of that, the midfield pivot of Cairney and Seri did not shy away from their own battles. Cairney won four of his five duels, and made three tackles. Three more than the number of shots and key passes he had. Seri didn’t make as many tackles, but did chip in with interceptions, and engaged in more duels. While Reed would likely have provided more intensity and energy in the midfield, the two playmakers certainly provided necessary work rate to stifle the opposition, who managed just one shot on target and failed to launch a counter-attack across the 90 minutes. Indeed Cairney’s work rate was so evident he collapsed to the turf at the final whistle. Seri for his part, was as devastating in possession as ever. His pass completion of 94% was unmatched, and his effortless ability to move the ball on was equally unique on the day. The redemption song continues to play.
Despite the solid first half display, which continued throughout the second period, it was nearly the home side who seized the initiative, as Lewis Grabban passed up the first real opportunity Forest had carved out, minutes after the restart. After avoiding that potential haymaker, Fulham went down the other end and began to punish every mistake their opponents made. The three-punch combination of Aleksandar Mitrovic, Neeksens Kebano and then Mitrovic again, killed Forest’s ambition and left them in a heap on the turf.
For all of Fulham’s ruthlessness, the hosts caused many of their own problems. It was not unlike the scenes travelling fans had seen themselves during the aforementioned trip to Coventry. Defenders colliding, misplaced passes leading to an overload, and a penalty. Although this time it was not those in white, and Odoi didn’t simulate contact in the award of his spot kick. Mitrovic dispatched the penalty and it is impossible not to mention the Serb, who would not look out of place in a boxing ring himself. He continues to score at an incredible rate. He now has 15 in 14, and shows no signs of slowing, on track for 50 league goals. Those are Ronaldo numbers.
In any sport it’s all about learning from past mistakes. This Fulham side are now coveting clean sheets as much as goals (top scorers in the league by 8 FYI), and that has to be a worry for any promotion rivals. Tosin Adarabioyo is gong about his business in such an assured manner, it’s easy to understate his impact. He is a colossus alongside Tim Ream, and has to be considered one of, if not the, best centre-back in the division. His presence in a promoted back line would certainly be a vast improvement on the defenders to have made the step up its the club on the last two occassions, coupled with Kenny Tete who also returned in the East Midlands, and Robinson’s defensive acumen, the team is much closer to having a Premier League ready defensive unit if Silva and co achieve the only objective that would be considered a success.
The next match against West Bromwich Albion will go some way to progressing toward that goal. At the moment, Fulham fans have every reason to feel confident against a principal promotion rival. Seconds out.