Slavisa Jokanovic was fairly emphatic during yesterday’s pre-match press conference that this weekend’s south London derby with Millwall will not leave Fulham fans with that uneasy after the Lord Mayor’s show feeling. The Whites were rampant going forward on Tuesday night at Bramall Lane – even if there were the usual defensive deficiencies and accompanying heart attacks – but stringing together successive victories is what has eluded the Serbian’s side so far this season.
Millwall might not have won in six league matches but they certainly won’t be short of confidence or support when they reach Craven Cottage. The Lions have a habit of spoiling Fulham’s home afternoons – with a five-match unbeaten record against their hosts in the second tier of English football since 1978. That run includes a 1-0 win at the start of Fulham’s first Championship campaign following relegation, when Felix Magath opted to start without the ‘unfit’ Ross McCormack, Martyn Woolford’s early strike gave the visitors a shot in the arm and the German’s side only looked vaguely threatening once Pat Roberts had been introduced from the bench. The popular and progressive Neil Harris has been a revelation as Millwall’s manager and the secret to his success has been consistent selections and faith in the players who helped the club earn promotion from League One. Harris, a living club legend, was right on the money when he said this week that Millwall could have sold out the Putney End twice over – and the away support will be raucous in any case.
Millwall should have broken their away league duck on Saturday at the Stadium of Light but an uncharacteristic error from the outstanding Jordan Archer handed Sunderland a point. Harris will be without Shaun Williams, who is likely to be replaced by Ryan Tunnicliffe, and Byron Webster’s absence means that former Fulham defender Shaun Hutchinson should also make a playing return to Craven Cottage. The visitors’ attacking options are considerable with Lee Gregory and Tom Elliott likely to lead the line with Shane Ferguson and Aidan O’Brien, who was highly linked with Fulham last season, providing both creativity and a significant goal threat from the wide positions. The wonderfully gifted George Saville will likely direct operations from a central position, with work threat, defensive discipline and good old-fashioned endeavour all qualities that Harris has stamped on his side.
Jokanovic has a few taxing questions post the Sheffield United madness to consider. The first is whether David Button has ran out of road in the Fulham goal. It became clear at Bramall Lane that defenders don’t have much confidence in the ex-Brentford goalkeeper and such an honest profession like Button will probably agree that he should have done better with both of the first two goals – and, after all the while, Marcus Bettinelli, who hardly put a foot wrong when he returned to the starting line-up at the end of last season. If a change isn’t made now, Fulham will have to wait for an even more catastrophic error that could doom any lingering hopes of promotion.
Fulham are definitely without long-term injury victim Lucas Piazon and Floyd Ayite, who picked up a hamstring problem on Tuesday. There will be some debate about how the hosts should lne-up. Much will depend on whether Stefan Johansen has shaken off the illness and ailments that have been troubling him over the past couple of weeks. The Norwegian could elbow his way past Ollie Norwood into the central midfield triumvirate or partner the Northern Ireland international. There can’t be much of a case for placing the midweek hat-trick Ryan Sessegnon back into the back four and, in any event, Jokanovic’s biggest conundrum comes up front.
One of the famous football truisms that has been passed along generations down the ages is that you don’t change a winning side. Fulham will be forced into at least one alteration, but whether Jokanovic opts to operate with no recognised striker after the merry hell that Sessegnon, Ayite and Sheyi Ojo caused in south Yorkshire. Ojo was seriously impressive at one of the league’s in-form outfits and totally vindicted his selection. If the Liverpool loanee can be turning in that sort of display on a regular basis, then Rui Fonte and Aboubakar Kamar might be sitting on the bench for a bit longer.
MY FULHAM XI (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks, Odoi, Ream, Kalas; McDonald, Johansen, Cairney; Kebano, R. Sessegnon, Ojo. Subs: Button, Madl, Cisse, Norwood, Graham, Fonte, Kamara.