After an international break during which the vast majority of the Baggies’ squad will have been well rested, Slaven Bilić takes his team to Craven Cottage for the lunchtime kick off on Saturday in what should be a real test for his unbeaten side.
In stark difference to what we have been used to in recent years, only a handful of the Albion squad were involved in action for their countries over the international break, with only Matt Phillips (Scotland) and Semi Ajayi (Nigeria) seeing senior action. Nathan Ferguson was the only other first team regular to play as he made his debut for the England U20s in a 1-0 win in Switzerland, while Dara O’Shea played in both of the Republic of Ireland U21 fixtures. Ahmed Hegazi’s Egypt did not play over this weekend but the Baggies centre back would have missed out through injury anyway.
Fulham represent the toughest test of Albion’s season to date. Nottingham Forest may be good enough to challenge for the top six, but many see the Cottagers as one of the favourites for promotion thanks to their potent front three of Ivan Cavaleiro, Anthony Knockaert and Aleksandar Mitrović.
Scott Parker’s team surprisingly lost on the opening day at Barnsley, but then rattled off three successive victories including a 4-0 demolition of Millwall, the team that the Baggies failed to beat on two occasions. Since then, however, Fulham suffered a home defeat at the hands of Nottingham Forest and then exited the Carabao Cup at home to Southampton. Last time out, they earned a draw away to fellow relegated side, Cardiff City.
That leaves them two places and two points behind Albion. Fulham have scored the same number of goals as the Baggies, ten, with half of those coming from Mitrović. The Serbian has scored in each of his last five games while Tom Cairney is the only player outside of their front three to have found the net so far this season.
Parker has a fully fit squad for the visit of the Baggies, but he will be without Harry Arter who was sent off in the feisty encounter with Cardiff, with his second yellow card given for simulation. That should mean that Stefan Johansen, on loan at the Hawthorns last season, will be in the starting eleven having been left out for the first time in the league this season at Cardiff.
Bilić, on the other hand, will still be without Hegazi who is not quite ready and doubts remain over the fitness of left backs Kieran Gibbs and Conor Townsend. The long break will hopefully have given them time to recover, and for Charlie Austin to continue to build up to full match fitness.
After a extended period of training, the Croat may look to tweak things with Rekeem Harper pushing for more game time but facing a difficult task to displace either Romaine Sawyers or Jake Livermore. Chris Brunt opted to play in a Central League fixture against Mansfield to get some match practise having only played four minutes in the Championship this season.
Other players pushing for some action include Chris Willock, although the performance of Pereira in the number ten slot against Blackburn has probably put his potential inclusion on ice for a while, and Hal Robson-Kanu who proved his form and fitness with a hat-trick in the 4-3 Central League win over the Stags.
Bilić has plenty of options, particularly across the front line, but I’d be surprised to see too much change from the side that beat Blackburn last time out.
Like Albion, Fulham are a work in progress having signed a number of new faces in the summer, including Arter, Knockaert and Cavaleiro on loan from Bournemouth, Brighton and Wolves respectively, while the lesser-known Sessegnon had not made a league start before this season. Harry Reed (Brighton) and Bobby Reid (Cardiff) also moved to the Cottage on loan with Josh Onomah their only permanent signing joining on a free transfer from Spurs.
It should be Albion’s sternest test to date. Parker has his team set up in a similar way to Bilić with a 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3 with Mitrović as the central striker, Knockaert and Cavaleiro either side and Cairney as the number ten. Full backs Sessegnon (Ryan’s twin brother, Steven) and Bryan also get forward well so it should be an attractive open game.
Albion haven’t won at Craven Cottage for 14 years, and it is that particular fixture, which I attended, is one I would like to feature this time.
October 2005 saw Fulham and Albion paired together in the third round of the Carling Cup. Both sides were in the Premier League at the time with Bryan Robson’s Baggies having pulled off the Great Escape just five months earlier.
Junichi Inamoto had spent two seasons on loan at Fulham before moving to the Hawthorns in the summer of 2004. He had found regular football hard to come by under Bryan Robson but was handed a rare start for the trip to the Cottage.
He repaid his manager early on with a lovely through ball for Robert Earnshaw in just the third minute. The Welshman converted with a wonderful dink over the advancing Tony Warner in the Fulham goal to give the visitors the lead. Albion had the better of the first half but couldn’t add to their lead and, just after the hour mark, the hosts were level. Steed Malbranque looped a ball over the high Baggies defence and Luis Boa Morte raced through and slotted past Tomasz Kuszczak.
The game looked to be winding down to a draw and extra time, when Warner mis-controlled a fairly simple back pass allowing Nwankwo Kanu to dispossess him and easily stroke the ball home for what looked like being the winning goal. It was not to be, however, as Heidar Helguson headed home Boa Morte’s free kick in stoppage time to set up the extra half hour.
The moment of the match came nine minutes into the first period of extra time. Inamoto picked the ball up on the half way line and drove into the Fulham half unchallenged. Thirty yards from goal, he unleashed an unstoppable shot that flew into the top corner to put Albion back in front.
There was more drama to come when Andy D’Urso decided to show a red card to Paul Robinson for his reaction to being pushed into the advertising hoardings by Zat Knight, but the Baggies held on for the victory. They were to go out in the next round, however, losing 3-1 at Manchester United.
It was also to be a season to forget for Albion as they were relegated back to the Championship with one of their lowest points being a 6-1 defeat on their return to Craven Cottage for the league fixture the following February.
All competitions; most recent game on the right
22 Feb 2014 – Premier League
West Brom 1 (Vydra)
Fulham 1 (Dejagah)
Last meeting at Fulham
14 Sep 2013 – Premier League
Fulham 1 (Sidwell)
West Brom 1 (McAuley)
23 Oct 2010 – Premier League
West Brom 2 (Mulumbu, Fortuné)
Fulham 1 (Carson (o.g.))
Last win at Fulham
25 Oct 2005 – League Cup 3rd Round
Fulham 2 (Boa Morte, Helguson)
West Brom 3 (Earnshaw, Kanu, Inamoto)
Albion’s Record against Fulham