After a long and somewhat tedious international break, proper football is back. Better put, the Premier League is back. Manchester City’s next opponents are newly promoted Fulham, who beat Aston Villa in the play-off final last season to earn promotion that would end their four-year exile from the top flight.
City boss Pep Guardiola said in his press conference that his City side are feeling better after the international break and he hopes they will strive forward from here and go on a positive run of wins.
However, Saturday’s opposition are by no means a guaranteed walk in the park for City. Slavisa Jokanovic’s side are well drilled and adequate both in and out of possession.
It will be a stern test for Guardiola’s against the newly promoted side who spent double what Manchester ‘buy the league’ City spent (sorry Fulham fans, I’ve been waiting a decade to say something along those lines!)
Let’s take a look inside the opposition…
TEAM NEWS AND PREDICTED STARTING XI
It has become known that Fulham’s trio of Tom Cairney, Tim Ream and Neeskens Kebano will miss the trip to the Etihad, but Fulham’s super impressive transfer window has allowed them depth in these areas.
Fresh off an England call up, goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli is set to retain his place in between the sticks. Fulham did sign the talented Spaniard Sergio Rico in the summer, and they also have experienced ‘keeper Fabri, but the Englishman Bettinelli looks to be the man Jokanovic entrusts at this moment.
Fulham’s back four is expected to be made up of four new seasons: Fosu-Mensah; Mawson; Le Marchand; Bryan. The full backs have earned plaudits so far for their ability to get up and down the pitch. Ex-Bristol City full back Joe Bryan could cause City problems, if he is allowed to cross the ball regularly.
In midfield is the biggest story heading into this tie. The talented midfielder Jean Michel Seri is a pivotal part of Fulham’s side after his transfer from Nice in the summer. To the shock of many, Seri chose Craven Cottage despite having interest from Barcelona, Arsenal and indeed, Manchester City. The young Frenchmen has started his Fulham career brilliantly and was awarded the goal of the month award in August for an audacious long range effort.
Ex-Chelsea forward Andre Schurrle was another signing that raised eyebrows from the watching world this summer, as the talented German made the switch from Borussia Dortmund. On the other flank, expect Argentinian Luciano Vietto, who made his name at Villarreal and Sevilla, to start.
THE DANGER MAN
There is no doubt who the danger man is, however. The Serbian international Aleksandar Mitrovic is becoming renowned not just at Fulham, but around the league for his goal-scoring rate. The ex-Newcastle striker has been dealing in the currency of goals since joining Fulham permanently, and business is booming.
Signing originally on loan for the Cottagers, Mitrovic scored twelve goals in fifteen appearances. Those goals were not the sole reason for Fulham’s promotion, but were certainly a driving factor.
So far this campaign, Fulham’s Serb has netted four in four, including a double in an impressive win over Burnley. More recently, the prolific striker scored a brace for Serbia in a draw with Romania in the UEFA Nations League.
City will dominate possession in Saturday’s fixture, but will have to be wary of Mitrovic’s presence on the counter, especially from crosses.
Pep Guardiola claimed he has spent hours on end studying Fulham in the international break. Sadly, perhaps, I haven’t had that luxury, so cannot claim to be a Fulham expert.
Luckily, I spoke to someone who is a Fulham expert: Jack Collins. Jack is part of the team at FulhamishPod, who have an excellently ran podcast that is ‘your independent voice of Fulham FC’. I asked him all things Fulham: from ‘that day in May’, to Seri, through to Saturday’s clash at the Etihad.
First of all, congratulations on promotion. What are your memories of last season under Jokanovic and that Wembley win over Aston Villa?
Thank you very much! It’s been a whirlwind since Jokanovic came in but overall, he’s completely changed the dynamic around the club, the way we play football and the overall success of Fulham FC. His attacking brand of the game, possession-heavy and with an attempt to control the middle of the park and stretch teams has been branded as City-lite, which is about as high an accolade as you can be given; and I’m sure he’ll be gagging to test that against the Master on Saturday. Wembley was about as good as it gets as a fan, and the whole day remains a blur of pure joy, overwhelming emotion and happy memories – no-one will be forgetting it in a hurry!
It has been a mixed bag of results thus far for Fulham. Are you pleased with your start or do you think there is much more to come?
We had a tougher start than people realise – playing Roy Hodgson’s Palace was a banker in the minds of some fans, but with Palace fielding a side with no new signings, and who had only lost to Everton outside the top six in 2018 at the time, it was always going to be a test. We played well that day, but we were naive and it cost us – to coin a phrase, we got Hodgsoned, just like we used to do to teams! We lost to Spurs to two world class goals, and then hammered Burnley.
Perhaps the most disappointing result was the 2-2 draw away to Brighton, where we threw away a two goal lead. On first glance, four points is fair, but we’ll need to be stronger at the back as we progress through the year. To a point though, we look excellent going forward, and if Mitrovic can stay fit and firing, we’ll have no problem scoring goals this season.
A player Manchester City were strongly linked with is Jean-Michel Seri – what are your thoughts on him so far?
It’s early to make final remarks, but from what we’ve seen, Seri looks a cut above everyone else. The way he spots passes without looking up and his ability to pick them out is second to none that I’ve seen at Fulham. Truthfully, if he carries on the way he is playing, the chances are that he won’t be at the Cottage for too long. He has the potential to go right to the top of the game.
Moving to the game on Saturday – what do you make of Guardiola’s City? Are there any weaknesses Fulham could exploit or are City too good for Jokanovic’s men?
I think as a football fan, it’s impossible not to admire City under Guardiola. The way you play football, the breathless carousel of passing, the ability of that midfield to influence games, the lightning strikes into opposition danger zones – it’s the kind of thing you dream of as a purist, never mind a fan. Guardiola is a genius, and rightly inscribing his name right across the top of the annals of footballing history—I think he’s truly the greatest of all time and will continue to win things wherever he is, throughout his career.
In terms of Fulham, the great hope we can take into the game is that the teams who tend to take the game to City a little bit, rather than sit in, that seem to unsettle things a bit. There’s things to be taken out of Wolves’ (albeit somewhat fortunate) point against you before the break, and considering that Jokanovic is unlikely to adopt a tactic that changes from his norm, I feel like we’ll try and keep the ball as much as we can. If we get the strokes of luck that any lower-half side needs against the Champions, then I do think we can cause problems.
If City fans are to fear one man on Saturday, who and why?
We’ve talked about Seri already, so I’ll take him as given, but Fulham’s main threat could come from either of the widemen either side of Aleksandar Mitrovic. Luciano Vietto was a deadline day loan from Atletico Madrid, but whilst not perfect, his touch and vision make him a nice foil for the big man. On the other side, the drive and tenacity of Andre Schurrle seems to be bringing him back to some semblance of form after two years in the wilderness at Dortmund, and their contrasting styles give Fulham different spearheads in the final third.
Finally, what are your predictions for the game?
I think you’d have to be unbelievably naive to go into this game with more than hope that Fulham are going to get a result. City are the best team in England, and probably in the world, right now; and in full flow it’s hard for any team to stop them, never mind a newly promoted outfit with a defence still getting to know each other. That said, if we play to our potential going forward, then I do think we can cause problems at the Etihad.
If I were a betting man, I’d maybe consider dropping a few quid on both teams to score, but I’m consigned to the idea that a good performance from the Whites, aside of the result, might be the thing I’m most pleased about on Saturday evening.
As they say though, it’s a funny old game. There was a flag at Fulham for years that said ‘Never expecting, always believing’—which is maybe the best way to put it!