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Three Players to Watch: Matchday 27 vs. Middlesbrough

With Fulham returning to league play, let’s see who they’ll have to look out for as they travel to the Riverside Stadium.

Middlesbrough v Sunderland - The Emirates FA Cup Third Round Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

Many Fulham fans will still come into the Riverside Stadium off the back of an FA Cup defeat that was a bit of a dull affair. While it was only a 1-0 loss to a Premier League side in Southampton, it sure felt like the margin of victory should have been greater. However, Slavisa Jokanovic did make five changes to his starting XI and was clearly thinking about keeping his squad fresh towards the final stretch of the league campaign.

Last time we saw Fulham play in that competition was truly a sight to behold. Sure, Jordan Spence’s red card played a major part in the result, but it is quite difficult to find many games of football where the winning side has come back and scored four goals in seven minutes. Aboubakar Kamara and Ryan Sessegnon were brilliant with their two goals, but don’t sleep on the fact that Tom Cairney is back and performing his absolute best. His assist on the third goal where he had to find a way to get past a circle of Ipswich defenders inside the penalty area was nothing short of ludicrous.

Even while Fulham was trailing, there’s no way they ever deserved defeat considering they outshot Ipswich 25-3 (especially with an 8-1 edge in shots on target). But the Cottagers can’t rest on their laurels now. They have a run of games up until Valentine’s Day where the club can collect all three points in every one of their games. But once that portion of the fixture list is over, Fulham will have to play Aston Villa, Bristol City, Wolves, Sheffield United and Preston North End all before the next International break. It is critical that they take advantage of this current run of fixtures for them to be in an advantageous position towards a spot in the playoffs. To achieve that feat, they will hope to continue their run of form against a Middlesbrough side under a new manager.

It was quite odd to see the former Premier League outfit fire Gary Monk, especially after a 2-1 win over Sheffield Wednesday just before Christmas. It’s not like they were a bad side, but seventh in the league just isn’t good enough for a club that demands to return to England’s top flight very soon. Along with that, Middlesbrough has been slightly over-performing their expected goal output throughout the course of the season. With Tony Pulis in charge, Boro does have a manager that will know how to get them back into the Aitor Karanka way of doing things: playing solid at the back, while entertaining the crowd be damned. In his first three games, he has taken two wins and has outscored the opposition 5-3 in the process. Clearly, more information will be needed to see if Pulis’ hiring was worth it, but it’s not like things will be boring in Teeside.

So with that in mind, let’s take a look at who else would be a challenge to Fulham after these two sides met at Craven Cottage last September.

Martin Braithwaite

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If we were to move past Britt Assombalonga’s season, the next leading scorer for Middlesbrough would be the 26-year-old Danish International. At five goals and two assists to his name, Braithwaite has been able to adapt playing behind the lone striker after so many years playing up-front himself while playing for Toulouse.

He has put up career highs in successful dribbles, chances created and defensive contributions. However, his shooting has decreased dramatically and has not been the same since his 2015/16 campaign where he put up 3.31 total shots per 90 minutes. If anything, Braithwaite has been relying upon an unusually high goal conversion rate to keep his usual goal-scoring form up. It will be fascinating to see where the rest of his career goes. He’s been a major help in Boro’s attack, but he is still only good enough to carry them towards 12th in the league in goals scored. One has to wonder if he is genuinely worth the £10 million he received in the long run.

Ben Gibson

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Now that Middlesbrough is managed by Pulis, it will be more important than ever to have the club maintain a solid back four. With that said, there is no one more emphasized to lead the club more than the team’s best center back. If Gibson were to continue the way he has been playing, he should be able to complete his second consecutive season where he has played every league game.

Even before Pulis has been able to get to know the former him, the former England call-up has been steadily improving in his passing ability and aerial prowess. However, there has been a de-emphasis as to how he went after tackles and interceptions in Gibson’s last two seasons. It will be fascinating to see how Pulis molds him in relation to how he wants his team to play.

Jonny Howson

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Last but not least, another Pulis staple is a talismanic midfield destroyer. While I don’t think you can give quite an adjective towards the former Leeds and Norwich player, Howson certainly fits the bill of what Pulis likes in his squads. This season, the former England Under-21 international leads Boro by some distance with 85 defensive contributions. In fact, his 4.37 combined possession adjusted tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes would be Howson’s highest rate since 2011/12.

Along with that, he has always been quite involved going forward as evidenced by his solid 1.14 chances created per hour. At just two goals and two assists, the Morley-born midfielder is due to light up the score sheet, but let’s hope that doesn’t come this Saturday.