VAVEL's 20/21 Season Previews: Survival is Fulham's sole aim
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It's a cold, damp April evening in 2019. With 90 minutes on the clock at Vicarage Road, visitors Fulham are trailing 4-1 to FA Cup semi-finalists Watford. The atmosphere among the home support is buoyant, that among the travelling fans not so much. A banner is unveiled reading 'Fulham relegation party' and, as the final whistle blows, an immediate return to the Championship after promotion the previous season is confirmed.

Perhaps the glamorous rigour of England's top flight simply proved too much for a group of players that had dwelled in the second tier since 2014; certainly mistakes were made on and off the pitch, both by a squad devoid of confidence and a recruitment team whose staggering £100m outlay on 12 players failed to adequately equip the club for a credible survival push.

The 2018/19 campaign provided a multitude of lessons to be learned and, following their instant arrival back in the Premier League via victory in the Championship playoffs, Fulham will be hoping to put those to use as they prepare for another opportunity to consolidate their status as one of England's 20 elite clubs.

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And with Scott Parker at the helm — in the infancy of what is tipped to be a successful managerial career, and holding a great affinity with the club in contrast to many of his floundering predecessors — their chances of doing just that don't look as slim as they did at the previous attempt.

Recapping pre-season

The only confirmed pre-season result was a 2-2 draw with League One outfit Milton Keynes Dons at Fulham's Motspur Park training ground, though it is known that another friendly was contested behind closed doors against a fellow Premier League side with details kept scarce.

Losing to an early goal from Callum Brittain, striker Aboubakar Kamara and then skipper Tom Cairney turned the game in favour of the Cottagers, but the Dons equalised in the closing stages through centre-back Regan Poole.

Pre-season is not the time to read too much into results and, for what it's worth, Parker gave his whole squad a valuable run-out by substituting all eleven starters at half-time.

Transfer business

Following impressive loan spells at Craven Cottage last campaign, both Harrison Reed and Antony Knockeart have been retained on a permanent basis, signing from south coast clubs Southampton and Brighton & Hove Albion respectively. Midfielder Mario Lemina has also come in on loan from the Saints.

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Highly rated USA international Antonee Robinson joined from Wigan Athletic for a cut-price fee; the full-back could prove a real steal given he was set to sign for Italian giants AC Milan not long ago.

Fulham also announced the loan signing of Paris Saint-Germain goalkeeper Alphonse Areola. The club hold the option to make the move permanent at the close of 2020/21.

And most recently, Holland international Kenny Tete transferred to Craven Cottage from another French outfit in Lyon. The right-back put pen to paper on a four-year deal which Fulham will hold the right to extend by a further 12 months.

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On the outs, defender Alfie Mawson will remain in the second tier with Bristol City, moving to Ashton Gate for the season alongside Steven Sessegnon.

Most notable on a fairly inconspicuous list of permanent departures are youth prospects Matt O'Riley, Luca de la Torre and Cody Drameh, the latter transferring to fellow Premier League outfit Leeds United.

Of course, the window remains open until October 5 for international and top flight transfers, so watch this space as there are likely to be more movements between now and then.

Who is Fulham's key player?

He scored 26 goals in the Championship last term, finishing joint-top scorer with new Aston Villa recruit Ollie Watkins in his most prolific season to date — if Mitrović can replicate that form in 2020/21, he will singlehandedly boost Fulham's chances of survival to a great extent.

The Serb is a player proven to be effective in the Premier League having notched 11 goals for the Cottagers in their relegation campaign and a further 14 in a stint at Newcastle United prior to that. Fulham will rely heavily on his contribution to prop them up in the standings, hopefully enough to secure their status for another year.

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It's true also that the 25-year old's output will be dependent upon the team's ability to supply him. Despite their impressive and intricate possession play seeing Fulham top the league metric for passes completed, five Championship teams managed to create more clear-cut opportunities last season, and fashioning these chances will prove even harder in the Premier League — the Cottagers must ensure that their main man isn't living off scraps.

A breakthrough talent

He could start as second choice to playoff final hero Joe Bryan at left-back, but it should be remembered that the 26-year old struggled considerably in the Premier League across 2018/19, and any poor spell of form on his behalf will grant Robinson the opportunity to display just why Milan were prepared to fork out a fee in the region of £10m for his signature back in January.

At 23, his greatest asset is perhaps his athletic prowess — he was revered at Wigan for his powerful and rapid runs down that left flank — but as a former winger he is also perfectly adept technically. He fits the description of the modern full-back; fit and fast enough to be part of a solid defensive unit without the ball, as well as an instrumental offensive weapon with it.

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Robinson is fighting to consolidate his position as a starter for the USA national team; this move to Craven Cottage will boost his chances massively and provide an even greater incentive for him to show what he's about.

Watch out also for midfielder Josh Onomah, whose departure from Tottenham Hotspur after graduating from the academy there has visibly spurred him on to become a key asset for Fulham, a crucial part of their promotion push last season.

Key dates

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Saturday, 12 September - Matchday One | Fulham vs Arsenal

Saturday, 19 September - Matchday Two | Leeds vs Fulham

Saturday, 31 October - Matchday Seven | Fulham vs West Brom

Saturday, 5 December - Matchday 11 | Manchester City vs FUlham

Saturday, 12 December - Matchday 12 | Fulham vs Liverpool

Monday, 28 December - Matchday 16 | Spurs vs Fulham

Tuesday, 12 January - Matchday 18 | Manchester United vs Fulham

Saturday, 16 January - Matchday 19 | Fulham vs Chelsea

Sunday, 23 May - Matchday 38 | Fulham vs Newcastle United

Writer's verdict

Will Fulham achieve their ultimate goal of another year in the Premier League? Well, it's still too soon to say because, in plain and simple terms, there must and probably will be more investment in players between now and the end of the window.

Co-owner and Director Tony Khan cannot allow a repeat of 2018/19. He and his recruitment team have to work diligently and intelligently to improve upon the squad which earned promotion, because the harsh truth is that this current crop of players won't be good enough.

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Parker is an exciting prospect, admired among those at Fulham for his man-management as well as his detailed, well-defined and well-drilled tactical philosophy. With a full season as head coach now under his belt, he will be thrilled to have earned another crack at the Premier League, and will doubtless get the most out of whatever squad he's assigned.

Expect the Cottagers to fight more valiantly than they did last time, but it remains to be seen whether or not that will suffice — because however it may be achieved, beating that vicious drop is Fulham's first and foremost objective this campaign.