The cold hard reality of the Premier League hit Marco Silva and his Fulham team on Saturday.
The question now is how quickly they can recover and bounce back.
Things had been going swimmingly for the Portuguese before Saturday’s 4-1 thumping by Newcastle at Craven Cottage. Fulham, so often exposed in recent seasons when they have tiptoed into the top flight, had started much better than expected, with three wins from their first seven games, playing some good football, and making some astute, promising signings.
But a series of calamities struck Silva’s team in quick succession on Saturday, and exposed the frailty of a small squad.
Before kick-off even, Silva was robbed of key young Portuguese midfielder Joao Palhinha by suspension, and defenders Kenny Tete and Antonee Robinson by injury, as well as new, experienced forward Willian. In addition, as was to become all too evident, talisman and top goalscorer Aleksandar Mitrovic played with the ankle problem he picked up playing for Serbia last week.
Within eight minutes, Nathaniel Chalobah, drafted in as Palhinha’s replacement, was sent off for a reckless challenge on Sean Longstaff. Fulham were already up against it. Newcastle’s wide men were running riot against Fulham’s shaky fullbacks - debutant Layvin Kurzawa having a first outing to forget and hooked before half time for what Silva described as “technical” reasons - and Eddie Howe’s men took full advantage.
Callum Wilson notched the first and Miguel Almiron a brilliant second goal with an astonishing volley. Then the next blow, as Mitrovic limped off - Silva saying later they will assess his injury over the next few days.
At half-time it was 3-0 as Longstaff scored, but it could have been eight - Wilson in particular missing several good chances, and Fulham goalkeeper Bernd Leno managing to keep the score respectable with a string of fine saves. Almiron grabbed his second after half time, and though Bobby Decordova-Reid notched a consolation goal two minutes from time, it could not provide much gloss on what had been a chastening afternoon.
Silva described Fulham’s defending in the first half as “sloppy,” and that was an understatement, and moaned: “We knew that with ten men it was going to be hard. But we had to be much more aggressive and compact.
“In the first half, after the red card, we were not at the level we should have been. In the second half I saw more courage and more belief.”
Next up for the Cottagers is a tricky trip to West Ham on Sunday, and then home games against Bournemouth and Aston Villa, fixtures which should provide Silva with an opportunity to stabilise things. Fulham do not want a promising start to turn into a winter of discontent.
But the defeat by Newcastle showed where Silva’s squad, understandably, is vulnerable. How serious Mitrovic’s injury is will be a key factor. However much the Fulham manager tries to deny it, his team revolves around the aggressive Serb and his goalscoring ability - six strikes in seven Premier League games before Saturday proved that.
The only real back-up is the £4.5 million former Tottenham striker Carlos Vinicius, and he has not really yet had a chance to find his feet in English football since his arrival last month.
Fulham will have Palhinha back from suspension at West Ham, and Saturday proved just how important the powerful, energetic Portuguese midfielder has become. Already a cult hero to the Craven Cottage fans, the 27-year-old anchors the Cottagers midfield and gives them a box to box energy they seriously lack without him.
In defence, though, there are also major worries. Tete is an accomplished, experienced right back who is Silva’s first choice, and Robinson normally his partner on the left. Fulham need to get those two fit as quickly as possible. Kurzawa, the Frenchman on loan from Paris St Germain, had a harrowing debut on Saturday, and clearly also needs time to settle. Kevin Mbabu had a poor game on the opposite flank - both, remarkably, being hauled off before half time as Silva desperately rang the changes.
When Silva, as he said after the match, can put out his strong first eleven, then Fulham are a match for most in the Premier League and are certainly competitive. But when injury and suspension strike, as so many promoted teams find, that is when the harsh reality of football at the very top level begins to bite.
Fulham’s transfer market business in the summer has so far proved relatively astute, with Palhinha and Andreas Pereira in particular so far proving classy additions to the squad. But it may well be that more of Shahid Khan’s money will have to be spent in the January transfer window to prevent further exposure in the second half of the campaign.