Ivan Cavaleiro is casting his mind back to the last relegation battle he was involved in. His Fulham side face a fight to stay in the Premier League this season but their survival chances are surely better than those of Deportivo La Coruña in May 2015.
Cavaleiro was on loan from boyhood club Benfica at the time and went into the final day of the campaign in a four-way fight to stay in La Liga. Deportivo had a two-point cushion on the drop zone. But there was a catch: their final game was away to Barcelona.
It took just five minutes for Lionel Messi to score his first goal. By the time he scored his second, Eibar, the team below Deportivo in the table, were three goals up on Cordoba. Deportivo were going down.
“Two-nil down, against Messi and Neymar, it seemed implausible that we would get back into it,” Cavaleiro tells Sky Sports with a smile. But then they did. Lucas Perez pulled a goal back and nine minutes later, Diogo Salomao poked home an equaliser.
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There was still a stomach-churning quarter of an hour to get through – “we just wanted the game to end,” recalls Cavaleiro – but they held on, securing a 2-2 draw and a vital point. “It was a glorious day for Deportivo,” he adds. “Nobody could believe we managed it but it was fantastic for the club to be able to stay in La Liga.”
Cavaleiro now has the same goal in mind with Fulham.
Scott Parker’s side are in a perilous position in the Premier League, two points away from safety with eight games to go. But Cavaleiro knows from experience the importance of fighting until the very end.
“I think it’s a case of focusing on the objective and not getting down or throwing in the towel,” he says, speaking over Zoom from the club’s Motspur Park training ground.
“Previously we were nine or 10 points behind 17th place, now the gap is only two points. I think we just need to keep going and keep believing until the end that anything is possible. We know we can stay up if we just stay focused and start winning.”
The challenge continues at Villa Park on Sunday.
Fulham suffered back-to-back losses to Manchester City and Leeds United before the international break but there were three wins from six before that – including a 1-0 victory over Liverpool – and there is no lack of belief among the players.
“We weren’t great at the start of the season,” says Cavaleiro. “We had quite a few defeats and conceded a lot of goals. But right now we are only two points away from safety and I think we’ve got every chance of staying in the Premier League.
“We have to take things game by game and try to have a winning mentality – that’s how it has to be. But we’re a team that hasn’t had much luck this season. There have been games where we’ve dominated our opponents and all that’s been missing is goals.”
Indeed, while Fulham have improved considerably at the back in recent months – only Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea have kept more clean sheets since the turn of the year – converting chances has been a persistent problem. There have been just 23 goals in 30 Premier League games so far.
Cavaleiro has been preferred to Aleksandar Mitrovic as Fulham’s central striker at times, with Parker keen to harness his speed and movement to stretch opposition defences. But while he has scored important goals against Leicester, Tottenham and West Brom, he accepts his personal total should be higher.
“Yes, yes, it’s true,” he says. “There have been quite a few games where I’ve played well, in my opinion, and I’ve received good feedback from the coaching staff, but I’ve missed chances.
“Finishing is something I’m working on every week. I know it’s an area in which I can definitely improve. But not just me, others as well. That’s our aim and our motivation – to score more goals.”
Cavaleiro hopes to find more cutting edge in the remaining weeks of this season but he is already offering plenty of industry – only Antonee Robinson makes more high-intensity sprints among Fulham players, according to Premier League tracking data – and his ability to play in different positions is invaluable to Parker too.
“I love playing through the middle,” he says. “It’s the position in which I feel most free and most at ease. But I believe these days it’s a case of playing in whichever position is asked of you, be it on the wing or in the centre, and doing what the coach needs from you.”
Cavaleiro’s admiration for Parker is clear.
He has a strong relationship with the former midfielder and believes his personal touch has improved him as a player since his arrival at Fulham from Wolves at the start of last season.
“He’s a manager who understands his players really, really well,” he says. “He’s a manager who gives me a lot of motivation, a lot of advice and works a lot with me personally.
“I think, in the short period I’ve had with him so far, he’s up there as one of the most important managers in my career because of that help he’s given me and the faith he’s transmitted to me as a player.
“He has shown how much he believes in me.”
How exactly has he helped?
“In lots of ways,” says Cavaleiro. “For example, I had some difficulties playing on the right side. I was getting a bit nervous and I didn’t know exactly what to do because I always preferred playing on the left.
Cavaleiro joined Fulham on loan initially but the move was made permanent the following January. At 27, his nomadic career has already included spells in four different countries. Fulham is his fifth club. But he feels more settled than ever at Craven Cottage.
“I feel at home at Fulham because I have a lot of friends here in London and a lot of family as well,” he says. “Even though there aren’t as many Portuguese players at the club as there were at Wolves, I’ve adapted well with the people here and it’s been great.
“I really want to stay here at Fulham for a number of years and I want to stay in the Premier League too…”
Even, you suspect, if it means another stomach-churning final day like the one he experienced with Deportivo back in 2015.
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