Fulham host Manchester United on Super Sunday, with Marco Silva wanting his vibrant side to sign off in style in what is the final Premier League game before the season breaks for the World Cup.
Silva’s team have already proved the pre-season doubters wrong to sit ninth in the table, level on points with Liverpool, after a hugely-impressive start to their Premier League return.
The west London club have spent five years in a row yo-yoing between the top two divisions, but things seem different this time around under the former Hull City, Watford and Everton manager, who replaced Scott Parker in the Craven Cottage dugout in July 2021.
Playing at the Cottage will be difficult for United as well, we have to make life really difficult for them, our fans should be on their best day to help us
Silva won promotion back to the top flight at the first time of asking, playing a brand of attacking football that will live long in the Fulham fans’ hearts, scoring a mammoth 106 goals in the process.
However, many doubted Fulham could replicate that sort of free-flowing football in the Premier League, with the club tipped for an immediate return to the Championship, like so many of their predecessors.
That, though, has so far proved not to be the case, with the Cottagers competing admirably right from their very first encounter, a daunting home clash with Liverpool in August, to last week’s trip to face champions Manchester City.
With United now in town this weekend, Silva is urging his players to produce the same type of performance they did against Liverpool and City in front of the Sky cameras.
‘Another week, another game’
Fulham head into Sunday’s clash with United on the back of a heartbreaking defeat at City last weekend when Erling Haaland’s 95th-minute penalty gave Pep Guardiola’s team a slightly-fortuitous 2-1 win.
Silva, though, was keen to take the positives from that display against what he called “the best team in the world”.
“At the end of the last match, it was tough to take in the last minute and a soft penalty, they needed some words from myself, some short analysis of the match,” he said when we sat down to talk at Fulham’s training ground this week.
“But we have to move on and this is the way we deal with all the games, even when we win, we analyse with the players and we go again.
“We should have got a different result, the way the game went when we were drawing and with the red card, it was a tough one, but now another game, another week.”
No place like home for the Cottagers
Against United on Sunday, Silva wants his players to use the opening-day 2-2 draw home draw with Liverpool as a template for how to go about their business.
On that sunny August afternoon, the newly-promoted side tore into the team that came within a whisker of winning the Quadruple last season, with the visitors fortunate to escape with a 2-2 draw.
“It was the best approach we can show for everyone how we are going to play this season, more at home than away, but even away we are showing our ambition to match them and we embrace the challenge,” Silva said.
“I thought it was really good, for us, our fans, first of all, to make us feel that everything we have actually been doing so far makes sense and makes us to play at that level is a fantastic feeling.
“And if you can repeat every time that type of performance and that type of desire and the will that we have shown in that game was fantastic for us. We try every time, sometimes we can, the other times the opposition side is there as well to make the things difficult for us.
“It is what we want and it is the way we prepare our team to play.”
If it ain’t broke…
Fulham played the first two Premier League matches of the season with nine players from their Championship-winning campaign last year, a deliberate policy by Silva, who was determined to keep the core of that team in the Premier League.
“Definitely, it was really important,” he said of that decision. “Of course, we have signed 11 players this season and 11 new players is a big number, a good number. We knew we had to adjust some things, add some qualities, some maturity in the Premier League and experience as well.
“Some players came from abroad with different backgrounds, we knew everything, but I definitely knew that we had a good platform. Since the first day I’ve said one of the main and most important things for us was what we keep from the season before and after will be a big competition inside the pitch and the players will have to be in a better position and condition, I will start with them.
“And, of course, it is important that platform as they were so important for us last season and they performed so well last season that it would not make sense to change everything just for change – OK, if you find and have the capacity to go and sign better players, OK let’s try and do it, but that platform is really important.
“Another thing that was important was that we gave time for them to perform, and we show everyone that arrives at this football club that they have to show their quality to be in the starting XI.
“And we create a very good competition inside our football club and they know clearly for them to play in our XI that they have to show during the week that they are better than the current player that is there.”
‘Pereira’s complete player’
The club also brought in 11 new players last summer, including Andreas Pereira from Manchester United, with the Brazil international having repaid the faith Silva has shown in him with a string of eye-catching displays, including two goals and four assists in the league so far.
“He is proving his quality week win, week out from the first day,” purred Silva about the 26-year-old midfielder.
“The game against Liverpool is a good example, from the first Premier League match of the season, he has shown his quality.
“My opinion is he is a very, very good player, he is a player that I really trust. I believe he will be more important with the games and months coming, the more time he is at this football club, the more important he will be for us.
“He will perform better for us definitely, a top-quality player in open play, set-pieces a key player for us as well, off the ball, working hard every time and for us, he is a complete player and I am really, really pleased to have him.”
The missing piece in the jigsaw?
As well as Pereira, Silva also used his extensive knowledge of Portuguese football to bring in Joao Palhinha from Sporting Lisbon, with the Portugal holding midfielder having hit the ground running right from the off.
The player, who was selected by his country for the upcoming World Cup, has so far proved adept at putting out fires in front of the Fulham back four, winning pretty much everything in the air, before starting attacks with his accurate passing, as well as chipping in with the odd spectacular goal or two.
And given he has only just arrived at the club, Silva says he will only get better with time.
“A really, really good signing for us, another good example of a player who has adapted so quick in our philosophy and football club, the club has made him feel at home here and after that, it is up to me to get the best from him on the pitch,” he said.
“He adapted really well, I have to say, I knew him really well from when he was young in Sporting and I knew what he could add to our squad, I knew that we needed a player like him in that position to give the others freedom.
“And he has been important, on the ball and off the ball, he has also scored important goals for us and with more time in the Premier League, he will adapt more and start to think faster, decide faster and much more things and better things will come from him.”
Silva’s not for changing
Fulham’s fast start to the campaign has put them in the top half of the table heading into Sunday’s showdown with United, however, that lofty position has not altered Silva’s thinking as to what constitutes a good season.
And for the Portuguese, 45, that simply means one thing and one thing only – survival.
“It is reality, we will not change one word what we said at the beginning of the season, it is too early to change and we don’t want to change anything from that moment,” he said. “Everyone knows our goal, we have to fight really hard and work really hard to get our goal.
“It is not because we do not want to change, it is reality and we have to deal with reality and every single match, we have to be more competitive, embrace the challenge, enjoy it, play well if we can, not just to go and win football matches, but to play under our philosophy as well. And the players are doing it in some moments brilliant and in the other moments, we have to improve.
“But about changing something, no way, we have to be realistic.”
Expect the same Fulham after the World Cup
After Sunday’s clash with United, Fulham’s next game will be their Boxing Day trip to London rivals Crystal Palace, although Silva does not expect the interruption to adversely affect his players.
In fact, he thinks it may play into their hands by giving him more time to work with his players on the training ground in Portugal.
“We will be the same team, we will have the same players, we are going to prepare our players well to be at the same level again come the first match against Palace on Boxing Day and we will definitely be the same ones,” he said.
“We probably have to be better as we have more time working and for us, we have only six players in the national team in the World Cup, but with the players we are going to be working with, we have to improve them and what we want as a team is to be even better.”
‘You want them to feel what all the other teams that played at the Cottage felt’
As for the visit of United this weekend, while Silva expects a tough examination from Erik ten Hag’s men, he also wants the Red Devils to leave the capital knowing they have been in a game and for his own charges to leave everything on the pitch in what is their final domestic contest for over a month.
“It will be a really tough one, when they are at their best level, they are a top team, that is clear for everyone,” he said. “They have high quality all over the pitch and on the bench as well and in these situations, we know we really have to be at our best, best level to compete.
“Playing at the Cottage will be difficult for them as well, we have to make life really difficult for them, our fans should be on their best day to help us, and together we can compete really hard and be really tough to play against.
“You want them to feel the same that all the other teams that played at the Cottage felt and this is the main thing for us and after, let’s see if the team performs well, better, or has the right conditions to win the game and I hope we can do our best to win that day.”
Watch Fulham vs Man Utd live on Sky Sports Premier League from 4pm on Sunday; kick-off 4.30pm