Ola Aina and Ademola Lookman lead the contingent whose careers may be at a crossroads if the West London side drop to the Championship
As Ola Aina tried in vain to prevent Timo Werner’s well-timed pass to Kai Havertz in the opening stages of the second half, the immediate seconds after Chelsea’s second in the 2-0 win were telling.
Fulham defenders stared at themselves, wondering how they’d allowed both Germany internationals combine quite easily in their defensive third to, more or less, kill any hope of a comeback after half-time.
A visibly deflated Aina sat on the Stamford Bridge turf as Havertz wheeled away, knowing full well his reunion with old friends was likely to end in defeat.
The ex-Blue may feel he could have prevented the gangly attacker’s first as well and, having nearly equalized just before the break — Edouard Mendy reacted well to palm away the deflected effort — the Torino loanee probably cursed Lady Luck.
Despite a tenacious and positive first-half showing, Fulham’s lack of quality in the attacking third and their penchant for conceding ill-timed goals saw them fall to their sixth defeat in eight games and 17th of the season.
While he’s arguably been their player of the season, Ademola Lookman’s showing in the tea-time encounter typified the Cottagers’ season of near misses and what-ifs.
What if the RB Leipzig loanee levelled in the 22nd minute with that effort that forced Mendy into a fine save?
What if his deliveries from set-pieces had done more to test a defence that anomalously creaked against West Bromwich Albion and was somewhat lucky to keep a clean sheet in their last outing at the Bridge against Brighton & Hove Albion?
While we’ll never have answers to those questions, the upshot of another damaging defeat leaves Scott Parker’s troops nine points from Burnley and Newcastle United on 36 points, needing to win their remaining games and hope one of the aforementioned teams or the three above — Crystal Palace (38), Brighton and Southampton (37) — somehow slip up in the campaign’s denouement.
Parker may talk optimistically to the media but even he knows that his Fulham side are on the brink of Premier League relegation in the next week or thereabouts.
The majority of the West Londoners’ performers have been year-long loanees and they’ll have to question their futures once the inevitable happens.
Aina, Lookman and Josh Maja represent three of the plethora of temporary signings made by the club and while it’s always easy to look forward to a return to one’s parent club, the circumstances at Torino, Leipzig and Bordeaux respectively mean it’s unlikely to be straightforward decisions.
Identically to Fulham, the Serie A and Ligue 1 sides could find themselves playing in the nation’s second-tier as well next season, although Torino’s resurgence under Davide Nicola currently puts them three points ahead of the 18th-placed Benevento in Italy.
On the other hand, Maja is likely to return to a club in turmoil after American owners King Street pulled their support of the Girondins in late April.
More salt could be rubbed in the club’s wounds if they suffer the double-blow of relegation, which remains a possibility given their run of eight defeats from 10 leaves them five points ahead of Nantes with three games to play.
The situation is different for Lookman, who returns to a Leipzig side that are expected to finish second in the Bundesliga for the second time in their history.
He left the club due to a dearth of opportunities in 2019/20 and was looking to impress Julian Nagelsmann away from the club; however, the 33-year-old won’t be in the dugout next season having been appointed by Bayern Munich.
Jesse Marsch’s appointment could signify a clean slate for the former Everton attacker, just as it could mean he could equally be unfancied by the new man.
Of course, there’s always the option of staying in the PL, an eventuality that wouldn’t surprise observers due to the 23-year-old’s relatively glowing performances in a struggling side this year.
A departure is improbable for Fulham’s fourth Nigerian, Tosin Adarabioyo, one of the club’s few permanent signings last summer and the centre-back may have to make do with Championship football in 2021/22.
This is a disappointment for the towering youngster whose delight at finally playing regularly in the top flight was evident upon signing for the London side in October last year.
However, that run in the big time may now be short-lived.
Three of the side’s final four matches fall into the ‘winnable games’ category, with encounters against Burnley, Southampton and Newcastle United on the final day to come in the coming weeks.
Winning all three and getting something from a daunting trip to Manchester United in the penultimate gameweek will represent one of the most captivating, unforeseen survival battles in Premier League history.
Parker has beseeched his players to “give their best until the curtain comes down”, but the likelihood of escaping now appears pretty grim.
When their exit is finally confirmed, the likes of Lookman, Aina, Maja and Tosin will have to make decisions that could have ramifications on their careers.