An intriguing West London derby takes place in the Premier League on Thursday evening, as Fulham play host to Chelsea at Craven Cottage.
Marco Silva’s side remarkably find themselves three places and three points better off than their near neighbours in the standings, albeit having played a game more.
In recent times, very rarely have Fulham fans been able to proudly say that their beloved team occupies a higher position in the English football pyramid than Chelsea, but the Cottagers are firmly in the European mix after a wonderful streak of festive form.
Since returning from the World Cup break, Crystal Palace, Southampton and Leicester City have all fallen to Fulham’s superiority in the Premier League, and Hull City were no match for a rotated Cottagers side in the FA Cup at the weekend.
Strikes from Layvin Kurzawa and Daniel James either side of the half-time whistle secured a 2-0 win and a place in the fourth round for Fulham – where they will host Sunderland – and Silva’s side enter Thursday’s capital clash sitting pretty in seventh place in the top-flight table, just five points below fifth-placed Tottenham Hotspur.
Now aiming to win four consecutive top-flight matches for the first time since the 1965-66 season, Fulham prepare for a gruelling run of January fixtures versus Chelsea, Newcastle United and Tottenham before also making the journey to Stamford Bridge for another meeting with the Blues in early February.
Despite posting just two home defeats all season long so far, Fulham have hardly defined consistency at Craven Cottage – winning just two of their last six in front of their own fans – but their situation is certainly a more favourable one than their out-of-sorts opponents.
There is seemingly no immediate danger of under-fire Chelsea boss Graham Potter being given the boot, but while the Englishman’s project is still struggling to take off, disgruntled Blues supporters made their feelings crystal clear during their FA Cup elimination at the hands of Manchester City.
Three days prior, Chelsea had given the English champions a good run for their money in a 1-0 Premier League defeat at Stamford Bridge, but City simply tore the Blues to shreds on Sunday, as Riyad Mahrez bagged a brace alongside Phil Foden and Julian Alvarez’s efforts in a 4-0 romping.
Those who braved the journey to the Etihad Stadium and stayed until the last bellowed out Thomas Tuchel and Roman Abramovich’s names as Potter’s slippery slope continues, and any positive energy emanating from early January transfer business is counting for little.
Fighting to even salvage their European status let alone a place in the Champions League, Chelsea lie smack-bang in the middle of the Premier League table in 10th place, coincidentally 10 points adrift of the top four and 10 clear of the relegation zone.
With an abysmal five defeats on their record from their last seven competitive games in all competitions, Chelsea also make the short journey to Craven Cottage with only one win from their last eight in the Premier League, and not since beating Aston Villa on October 16 have they claimed all three points on the road.
On a brighter note, Chelsea have a seven-game winning run against Fulham to protect on Thursday – as well as 21-game unbeaten run in all tournaments – but as Potter has quickly learned, all good things must come to an end.
The 78th minute of Fulham’s victory over Leicester last week was one that Cottagers supporters wanted to forget, as it saw star striker Aleksandar Mitrovic incur his fifth booking of the season – ruling him out of the visit of Chelsea through suspension.
However, Silva has no other fresh concerns to work around for Thursday’s derby, where Neeskens Kebano will remain out with his Achilles injury, but Shane Duffy will hope to return following an illness. Meanwhile, Manor Solomon made just his second appearance in Fulham colours since joining from Shakhtar Donetsk against Hull and will pine for a more active role in this game.
Solomon’s prospects of starting are slim to none, though, as Silva reintroduces Willian into the final third alongside Mitrovic’s deputy, Carlos Vinicius.
In contrast, Chelsea’s injury list has hit double figures again, with none of Ben Chilwell, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Edouard Mendy, N’Golo Kante, Reece James, Armando Broja or Wesley Fofana ready to return from their problems just yet.
Christian Pulisic and Raheem Sterling are also sidelined with the issues they picked up against Man City in the week – the former is set to be sidelined for a number of weeks – but Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang should shake off a back issue to make the squad.
With Potter’s options severely limited, the duo of David Datro Fofana and Benoit Badiashile can feel confident of earning their Premier League debuts, albeit most likely as substitutes.
Thiago Silva, Cesar Azpilicueta, Marc Cucurella and Denis Zakaria are among those in line for returns to the first XI after being benched at the Etihad.
Fulham possible starting lineup:
Leno; Tete, Ream, Adarabioyo, Robinson; Reed, Palhinha; De Cordova-Reid, Pereira, Willian; Vinicius
Chelsea possible starting lineup:
Kepa; Azpilicueta, Koulibaly, Silva, Cucurella; Kovacic, Zakaria, Jorginho; Ziyech, Havertz, Mount