Marco Silva handed boost as back-up boys show Fulham can fight on two fronts
On a night when Fulham manager Marco Silva watched from the stands, his biggest concern was not his difficulty in communicating from high up in the eaves at the Stadium of Light, but whether his bit-part players could perform.
Silva served a touchline ban having amassed too many yellow cards. Sat in the back row of the West Stand, he watched Fulham see off Sunderland at the second attempt to book a meeting with Leeds in the fifth round of the FA Cup.
Silva shuffled his pack once more and made nine changes. In came Tom Cairney, Shane Duffy and Layvin Kurzawa, as well as 17-year-old academy product Luke Harris.
Bar a few costly errors, the stand-ins performed well to offer Silva encouragement that his squad is strong enough for a run deep into the FA Cup, while still maintaining their good form in the Premier League.
Kurzawa can count a Champions League hat-trick and runners-up medal, as well as 13 France caps, in his list of accomplishments, yet the 30-year-old has been unable to dislodge USA international Antonee Robinson from the starting left-back berth at Fulham.
That marks a considerable fall from grace for the four-time Ligue 1 winner. Unlike in the first game against Sunderland though, when he was run ragged by Tony Mowbray’s energetic side, he impressed in the replay. Kurzawa intercepted well in the early moments, played incisive passes which encouraged his team-mates to bomb on, and scored what turned out to be the winner when he guided his volley into the top corner.
Cairney and Duffy made that goal possible with successive glanced headers and both players, like Kurzawa, took their chances on Wednesday.
Cairney is the Fulham captain yet appears mostly from the bench these days. Former Brighton centre-back Duffy can’t even claim that anymore. Yet both affected play positively on Wearside.
Cairney regained possession, flew forward and shot when within distance. Duffy showed his defensive instincts and blocked on the line superbly when on-loan Manchester United youngster Amad Diallo had tied Fulham’s defence in knots and struck on target.
Fulham have been mightily impressive this season on a modest budget. There is however a sense that they are only a few serious injuries away from unravelling. They are overly reliant on Aleksandar Mitrovic’s goals — which have dried up recently — and the creativity of Andreas Pereira.
Indeed, both players combined nicely off the bench to double Fulham’s advantage in the second half, and Fulham had conjured up enough opportunities earlier in the game that they shouldn’t have needed either player.
For the most part though, this was a suitable audition from Silva’s back-up players. When Kurzawa left Paris Saint-Germain for Fulham on loan he would have expected to leave European football behind. Fulham, he must have thought, would at least give him regular football.
In fact, the opposite is true. Kurzawa is struggling for game time, yet if Fulham can keep on winning and achieve the unthinkable, Silva might just be convincing Kurzawa to stay for another year. If they did secure European football for next season, Fulham would need his knowhow. They are learning how to win ugly.