Fulham’s new faces and old give early optimism over survive and thrive Premier League plans

·4 min read

At the interval on the opening weekend of the season, Fulham fans would have been riding high on optimism, not just for the 90 minutes but for the season and even beyond.

It wasn’t just that they were beating Liverpool, nor even that they were deservedly ahead. Nor was it solely about the usual (and warranted) over-excitement of a Premier League return, more impending transfer arrivals in the final week of the window or the prospect of clocking up about 8 per cent of the points required to stay up already, on day one.

The added surge of hope and belief would also have been in part due to the debut performance of Joao Palhinha, a summer signing from Sporting CP who had previously been linked with bigger, more established top-flight clubs. On the basis of how he handled Liverpool’s midfield in that opening period, maybe a few are already regretting their hesitation.

Ultimately, the Cottagers didn’t quite over the line for three points, though even claiming one by the final whistle was clearly big for the home fans, who had roared on their team and berated the officials all afternoon in equal measure en route to a 2-2 draw.

And yet despite that, this would very much count as a “point won” rather than two dropped, in the theoretical plan of the season and where they could pick points up along the way to survive - and perhaps rather more than that.

Aside from in the immediate aftermath of the game, there will be obvious concerns about sustaining the performance level from this game, which was extremely good from the promoted side. They were energetic, aggressive, combative, quick to react to changes of the flow of the game - all of those they did better than Liverpool.

But the squad remains thin, hence Marco Silva’s call for significant recruits before the transfer window shuts, and there’s a huge world of difference between being up for the club’ first big game in the top flight for well over a year, and maintaining that type of intensity game after game, week after week.

Two key figures, though, showed they will have a massive impact on Fulham’s fortunes, starting with Palhinha in the middle.

The new signing was exceptionally quick into the challenge, strong in the air and relentless in giving the visitors’ midfield no chance to settle into a passing rhythm or even play forwards - he was constantly forcing Thiago and Co to turn back to the full-backs or central defenders, rather than being able to link with Luis Diaz and Mohamed Salah.

Six tackles from the Portuguese was easily the best on the park in that category, while he also strode forward often enough to get a couple of shots away and help relieve pressure at times.

He’s new, he’s exciting, he gives hope to the supporters that the recruitment team is going to get it right more frequently this time, given the horror show of 2018 and the half-hearted 2020 version.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Further forward, it was a much more familiar face who made the crucial difference. Aleksandar Mitrovic has been at Fulham for more than four-and-a-half years now, including the original loan, but his Premier League impact has been minimal until now.

Here he scored, won a penalty, scored again and showed all the defensive contribution, hold-up play, ball-carrying abilty and willingness to help out his side in deeper zones that Fulham are going to badly need if they are to maintain this early season optimism. The Serbian striker already only needs one more goal to match his haul from the entire campaign in 20/21.

Silva, in the dugout, won’t be getting carried away just yet. He will likely allow himself an amount of satisfaction in putting a ridiculously early dent in the title hopes of the team who beat him in his final game in charge of Everton, before being sacked, but far more importantly, he has an early barometer to point his team towards for what’s required every single time this season.

It has been said a thousand times before, but if a side plays with that vigour and direction more often than not, they’ll be unlikely to go down. The challenge is maintaining that energy once the newness of the season wears off, and in a run-of-the-mill away day to a mid-table side, rather than a high-profile meeting with a titan.

But the positive signs were there right from kick-off, with both new signings and old guard contributing to making Fulham’s return to the elite of English football a happy one for the home support.