After a tricky trip to North London ended in defeat on Tuesday night, this Friday fixture brings Middlesbrough back to the capital to face Fulham in a match which might on the face of it appear to be a comfortable one for the hosts. At present, Scott Parker’s side are in fourth place in the Championship – and, with league leaders West Brom and Leeds beginning to drop points, the Cottagers could yet find their way to an automatic promotion slot. Boro, for their part, are somewhat between two stools: if they had ten points fewer, they’d be in the relegation zone, but if they had ten more they’d be right behind tonight’s opponents. The season could yet go either way for Jonathan Woodgate’s side.
As the home side, and the team currently eleven points better off than their opponents here, Fulham are inevitably favourites for this game, but they’re not entirely insulated from issues coming into it. The hosts will have to approach this game without the division’s top scorer, Aleksandar Mitrovic, who is nursing an ankle ligament injury. His eighteen goals in the Championship amount to almost half of Fulham’s total, so his absence here will certainly be a blow, and his place in the team will likely go to French forward Aboubakar Kamara. Though a faster player, there’s no doubt that Kamara is yet to show the goal threat Mitrovic carries.
Not expecting a classic
Three days may have passed since Boro’s cup dalliance with Spurs, but it still feels harsh that they are back in action for a Friday night game, and they will certainly have had less chance to rest up and relax than their opponents this evening. It remains to be seen whether Woodgate will ring the changes, but he does have the chance to give a start to striker Rudy Gestede, who came on as a substitute in the cup tie and offers an aerial threat that won’t be appreciated by Fulham’s central defenders.
With Boro possibly still feeling the effects from Tuesday night, and Fulham looking for a plan B in the absence of the club’s talisman, there is every chance this will be a bit of a messy game. Neither the team sheets nor the cold January night weather are likely to be conducive to a classic contest, and we can easily see this being a low-scoring contest. Paddy Power are offering ⅘ on there being fewer than 2.5 goals in the meeting, and we’d be surprised if the scoring exceeded one for each side.
Supporting casts to deliver the finish?
In Blackburn Rovers’ 2014-15 season, Gestede ran amok with 20 goals in 39 league games. For Aston Villa, and then Middlesbrough, he has scored a total of 14 in his last 98. Since he signed for Boro specifically, he has notched five in four seasons. For reference, Paddy McNair has scored almost that many this season alone for Boro, and he is a centre-back. On the Fulham side, Kamara has three this season in twenty appearances, so we can say with confidence that the strikers on show give limited reason to expect a sudden Vardyesque spree.
That’s not to say there won’t be attacking talent on show. Boro have, among their starters, the dribble-wizard that is Patrick Roberts (himself a former Fulham player) while the hosts can call upon Ivan Cavaleiro, now a permanent squad member after completing a transfer from Wolves. The Portuguese winger is 7/1 with William Hill to score the opener tonight, those odds being enhanced from 5/1. He’s been in splendid form recently, so he’s certainly well worth considering to break the deadlock here.
Neither side to leave happy
Just when the vultures may have been beginning to circle over Jonathan Woodgate’s managerial bow at Middlesbrough, the team has started to show definitive improvement with four wins and a draw in their last five league games. If they’d put together a few runs like that earlier on, they’d be right in the promotion picture. As it is, they could yet lift themselves into the play-off places with a few more wins at the right time. However, so soon after a strenuous cup tie, it’s a huge ask to expect them to come here and win.
At the same time, it’s not a foregone conclusion that the home side here will be in much better condition for a win, given that they focus so much of their usual approach on getting Mitrovic in place to score. Without him, and considering the difference between his game and that of his replacement, it would be a surprise if Fulham were as fluent tonight as they would hope to be. Based on that, it makes a lot of sense to call this one a draw. You can get 13/5 for that at Toals, and it’s understandable that they’d make the home side favourites – but we can see this being a more even battle than many people think.