Fulham vs Middlesbrough preview:  Parker's men looking to kick on against resurgent Boro
Tim Ream of Fulham heads the ball clear during the Sky Bet Championship match between Middlesbrough and Fulham at the Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough on Saturday 26th October 2019. (Photo by Iam Burn/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The Sky Bet Championship is an uncompromising division.

Just ask Scott Parker and Jonathan Woodgate who, at Fulham and Middlesbrough respectively, might have been wishing for a low-profile initiation season to get their bearings in the life of management. The reality has been quite the contrary.

While both boast impressive recent results with Boro first in the form table for the last 10 games, they have also, at times, had their job under immense scrutiny. And, in fourth  and 16th, both remain at quite a distance from where they would have hoped to be.

Nevertheless, Fulham will be doing all they can to mount pressure on Leeds United in 2nd, and three points on Friday would do just that - leaving them only four points shy of Marcelo Bielsa's imploding Whites.

Boro's task is simple: continue the blistering form which has seen them take a staggering 13 points out of their last five matches.

Team news

Fulham were dealt a huge blow on Wednesday with Parker confirming star striker Aleksandar Mitrović will be sidelined for three weeks with an ankle ligament injury. "We were worried it might be a little bit longer but, although there is damage, we hope we can turn him around in a few weeks," Parker told the BBC.

Harrison Reed (calf) and Aboubakar Kamara (ankle) are also set to miss out, while Maxime Le Marchand and Steven Sessegnon will be assessed. Tom Cairney, though, is likely be welcomed back into the starting XI having returned to the bench against Hull City last time out.

The visitors are also carrying a relatively long injury list with Britt Assombalonga (ankle), centre-back Daniel Ayala (also ankle) and skipper George Friend all ruled out for Friday's clash. Defenders Ryan Shotton and Anfernee Dijksteel will join them in the stands, meaning midfielders Paddy McNair and Jonny Howson will continue to deputise as auxiliary centre-backs.

Fulham predicted XI: (4-3-3) Rodák [GK], Bryan, Ream, Hector, Odoi, Cairney, McDonald, Johansen, Cavaleiro, Reid, Knockaert.

Middlesbrough predicted XI: (3-4-2-1) Pears [GK], Fry, McNair, Howson, Spence,  Coulson, Wing, Saville, Roberts, Tavernier, Fletcher.

Fatigue likely to hit for Boro

While forcing an FA Cup third round replay against Premier League giants Tottenham Hotspur was a moment to remember for Woodgate, the fitness consequences will undoubtedly be itching at the back of his mind as he leads his side to West London for their 7th match in just 22 days.

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Boro can not afford to lose the invaluable momentum gained over the festive period, and Fulham will be doing all they can to prove their promotion credentials in front of the Sky Sports cameras. 

And although travel has been minimised with Boro staying in London this week and using Crystal Palace's training facilities, Woodgate's men ran themselves into the ground in the 2-1 defeat to Spurs, and may well begin to fade as the game progresses on Friday.

A new Fulham ?

With a wealth of illustrious attacking talent and the sharpest marksman in the league at their disposal, many expected Fulham to steamroller the division this season.

There has always been one glaring achilles heel, however: the defence. The rate at which Fulham were conceding chances and the erratic organisation of their defence meant an automatic promotion push was always going to be difficult. On Saturday, though, we saw a new Fulham.

Undoubtedly aided by the addition of defender Michael Hector in defence, Fulham grinded out a 0-1 away win at Hull City in a game with few thrills and spills, but equally a lot to admire about a more resolute Fulham side.

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Kevin McDonald provided defensive balance in the midfield while Cyrus Christie and Denis Odoi kept it tight on the flanks as Fulham produced a rare commodity: an away clean sheet. It was only their third of the season.

The question now is whether they can replicate their new-found solidity against a Middlesbrough side who have already inflicted home defeats upon West Bromwich Albion and Preston North End over the past month, and whose attacking firepower has been bolstered by the arrival of Patrick Roberts and Lukas Nmecha on loan from Manchester City.

Woodgate rewarded for faith in youth

In times of sheer desperation, it is not uncommon for managers to resort to young players. After all, youthful exuberance and an instant connection with the fans are two desirable traits for any manager.

Even so, when the likes of Djed Spence and Hayden Coulson were afforded a shot in the first team by Woodgate, few would have foreseen the impact they would have.

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Spence, a bombarding right wing-back, has particularly impressed, winning the EFL Young Player of the Month award for December. Coulson plays a similar role on the left-hand side, and is accompanied by Lewis Wing in midfield, who - although now 24 - is also flourishing under Woodgate.

Marcus Tavernier, another product of the Middlesbrough academy, has also blossomed in recent weeks  in an attacking midfield role behind Ashley Fletcher. Though it's the collective that has been most important. The sense of unity at the club is palpable at the minute, and this is not only down to the emergence of the academy graduates, but also the success of Woodgate: a man born and bred on Teesside.

What the managers have said

Speaking to the Fulham media in his pre-match press conference, Scott Parker acknowledged the need for Fulham to strike up a winning run, but at the same time is wary of the threat this in-form Middlesbrough side poses. "Jonathan Woodgate's done a very good job after a slow start," he praised.

"Early in the season it was probably stressful for him, but he's changed things around a bit. He's a good lad. Middlesbrough have some athletes in their team, so we'll need to be aware of that. It'll be another tough game for us.”

He continued: "We've got a run of fixtures with tough games coming up, but they are games you look at and think if we can get on a good run here, we can do something pretty good."

Woodgate's Boro have done just that, and he feels the acquisition of Patrick Roberts has provided the "missing link" to their offensive play. He told Teesside Live: "Patrick Roberts has been fantastic, his performance on Saturday was terrific. I love players like that, he's got a real energy about him."

"Even in training he wants the ball and he can make things happen. I think that's what we've been missing, that link, someone who can create something out of nothing."

The Middlesbrough boss also took great pride out of their dignified 2-1 FA cup exit to Spurs on Tuesday night, in a match which he felt typified the grit and never-say-die attitude within the ranks. "I tell you what, my players showed fight, desire, hunger. You go 2-0 down and you're thinking the worst," Woodgate told Hartlepool Mail.

"But my players don't give up, they kept on going right until the end."

 

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