FROM his experiences against Fulham with former club Leeds United last season, Garry Monk clearly recognises a top side when he sees one.
The Cottagers may have missed out on promotion, after losing to Reading in the play-off semi-finals, but Monk is unequivocal in his view that they represented the best side that he saw in the Championship last term.
The Boro manager admits that facing the Londoners will provide a barometer in their recent progress, too, with the Teessiders going into the game on the back of a six-match unbeaten run in all competitions.
Monk, whose Leeds side drew twice with Fulham last term, said: “For me, Fulham were the best team in the league last season. They were the most difficult team we played against and played very good football. Another season forward, they will have improved on that.
“They are a team that are going in the right direction. They have got a very good manager, and he sets them up in a really good way.
“I think (Tom) Cairney is probably due back for this game, and that is another thing we will have to be aware of.
“The game is definitely going to test us, and it will be a marker in some respects of where we are at this point. No game defines your season at this stage, but it will show us where we are.”
A positive result this afternoon would seal an excellent week for Boro, who followed up last weekend’s entertaining league win over QPR with Carabao Cup progression at Villa Park.
That saw the likes of two-goal Patrick Bamford provide food for thought for Monk in terms of his selection today and as for his view on the overall well-being of his side and recent results, the Boro chief is relatively satisfied, but is expecting much more over time and for his side grow into the season.
Monk, who will again be without Martin Braithwaite and Rudy Gestede, said: “I don’t think we have been at our best yet, right across the team.
“But that improvement and consistency is what we are striving for.
“The attitude towards fighting for that improvement is there on a daily basis, and I have to give the players credit for that.
“They are fighting for that very hard, all of them. As a manager and staff, that is what gives you confidence you are on the right path. That improvement will come with time.”