It only seems like yesterday when Tom Cairney stroked that sumptuous winner into the Aston Villa net in the glorious Wembley Stadium sunshine, but the new Premier League season is upon us. We’ve had a World Cup to distract us over the summer, but every Fulham fan has been counting down the 77 days between that memorable day in May and the Whites’ return to the Premier League. The opening game at Craven Cottage was always going to be a big day, but the fact that former Fulham manager Roy Hodgson returns with Crystal Palace this afternoon, makes it extra special.
Fulham’s incredible exploits in the summer transfer window have whetted our appetite even more – if that’s even possible. Slavisa Jokanovic has a squad that looks like it could be competitive in the top flight, but the Serbian head coach has urged his side not to get carried away on the eve of the big kick-off. He’s wary of maximising expectations following a strong close to the window and Palace, always well-organised and tough to beat under Hodgson, made some good signings of their own, bringing in Max Cheikhou Kouyate from West Ham, Jordan Ayew from Swansea and most notably, the highly-rated Max Meyer from Schalke. As we know from his time by the Thames, Hodgson is not the type of manager to make sweeping changes during a window. Instead, he will carefully identify the areas where his squad can be improved and Palace should have another good season with him at the helm. The Eagles will definitely provide an intriguing test of our own suitability for the top flight.
You would expect that Palace will line up in a similar fashion to way they finished last season. With only Yohan Cabaye and Reuben Loftus-Cheek no longer being at the club, they will still have a very recognisable Hodgson identity about them. Palace will likely prove tough to break down and be happy to play on the counter with the likes of Zaha, Townsend and Benteke up top. They also have the pace and trickery with Van Aanholt down the left and the creativity of Milivojevic through the middle. Palace will be pleased to have been able to ward off interest in the excellent Wifried Zaha, which was arguably their most successful bit of business of the whole summer. His presence and the sheer quality of attacking talent could make for an open game with both teams eager to make a strong start.
Jokanovic’s first eleven of the season will also be eagerly awaited. Tim Ream’s absence with a problem picked up in training is a blow, especially given his importance to that promotion winning side, and with Alfie Mawson also missing, Fulham may need to switch their back four around a few times early in the campaign. It could be Arsenal loanee Calum Chambers and French defender Maxime Le Marchand, who has at least had the benefit of a full pre-season, at the heart of the defence with Cyrus Christie at right back. I also expect Christie to start at right back after the summer transfer of Fredericks to West Ham. The arrival of Joe Bryan should allow Ryan Sessegnon to roam threateningly on the left wing. Jokanovic has a dilemma over who to select in goal, having spent £5m on Fabri and signing Sergio Rico on deadline day,
Given that we have home advantage tomorrow, I expect us to take the game to Palace with our fluid passing and high work rate. I think the first 15 minutes will be cagey but I am hoping for a positive result. I am in a positive mood for this season and I expect us to just edge a nervy encounter at the cottage tomorrow.
MY FULHAM LINE UP (4-3-3): Fabri; Christie, Le Marchand, Chambers, Bryan; McDonald, Cairney, Seri; Schurrle, Sessegnon, Mitrovic.
PREDICTION: Fulham 2-1 Crystal Palace
Even in your wildest dreams, you couldn’t have envisaged a transfer window like this. Fulham appear determined not to waste the chance that Premier League football returning to Craven Cottage this season. Tony Khan and his colleagues have bought Slavisa Jokanovic an entire new team in just a summer, spent more than £100m and attracted some serious talent to the club. The ambition that has been shown by the Khans is incredible. We set a new record this summer with the first promoted club to ever spend over £100m in their first summer and we have signed some mouth watering additions to add to a very talented squad. However, with the new signings coming in, the likes of Denis Odoi, Kevin McDonald, Stefan Johansen and Marcus Bettinelli have to be wondering if they’ll be getting much game time this upcoming season.
The most exciting arrival for me is no doubt the signing of Jean Michael Seri from Nice. Just twelve months ago that he appeared on the verge of joining the Spanish giants Barcelona, but the move collapsed right before the deadline. Seri has also been linked with the likes of Manchester City, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich but, much to our surprise, Tony Khan and the Fulham board managed to persuade the classy midfielder to sign on the dotted line at London’s oldest club. His stats are also impressive, making the most completed passes in the Ligue 1 and also claimed three individual honours last season, Prix Marc-Vivien Foe award, Nice Player Of The Year as well as being selected in the Ligue 1 team of the year. Former Fulham head coach Rene Meulensteen lauded him as the new Clarence Seedorf, which is some comparison. If Seri can reach those heights that he has achieved in previous seasons, he may well be our best signing of the window and it all adds to the dizzying excitement of a new campaign.
Our shrewdest signing of the summer window has to be Andre Schurrle. His previous Premier League experience and versatility is just what we required, as the spine of the side that triumphed at Wembley had very little top experience. Schurrle can play anywhere in the front three and his years of experience playing at the highest level will certainly help the likes of Mitrovic, Sessegnon grow and have a successful season. Schurrle has stated that it was the football we play which persuaded him to join a club wanting to reach the next level and with a two-year loan deal secured, he could have a major part in taking Fulham there.
Overall, it has been an enjoyable 2018 for us, gaining promotion back to where we belong, securing 12 fantastic additions to our squad and agreeing new deals with key players Tom Cairney, Tim Ream and Kevin McDonald. I have seen a lot of people complimenting the work of the Fulham board over these past 3 months and with just over 24 hours to go until the first ball is kicked, what a time to be a Fulham fan! COYW!
With reports last night that Andre Schürrle is due to undergo a medical today with Fulham, it’s hard to not get carried away with the prospect of the front three that Slavisa Jokanovic will be able to put out in the Premier League come August. If all goes to plan, that fluid forward line could be teenage sensation Ryan Sessegnon, Serbian hitman Aleksandar Mitrovic and Schurrle, who will have something to prove in English football after being let go by Chelsea.
Despite reports to the contrary lately, I have the upmost confidence that the deal to bring Mitrovic to Craven Cottage will be confirmed by Friday, finally ending two months of fevered speculation regarding the Newcastle United striker’s future. The partnership between Sessegnon and Mitrovic proved pivotal in our promotion in our promotion from the Championship last season. The constant threat from the left and through the middle caused havoc in opposition defences and when you add a World Cup winner to the mix, it certainly provides real optimism for the season to come.
So what does Schürrle bring to the table? Well, he brings a wealth of experience at club and international level. His Premier League record scoring record stands at a goal every four games, which is particularly impressive for a winger. He also has an impressive goal to game ratio for his native Germany, scoring 22 goals in 57 appearances; and he also famously provided the assist to give Germany their first World Cup in 24 years. Schürrle also offers versatility in being able to play across the front 3 – which could see he and Sessegnon swap flanks to further bamboozle defenders. He has bundles of experience at the highest level and the work ethic of a proven winner. He has been linked with the likes of Everton, Crystal Palace, AC Milan and Lazio this summer but it looks like Tony Khan may well have got his man. This latest piece of transfer business highlights Fulham’s ambition not just to make up the numbers upon their return to the top table of English football – and the new boys are certainly sending out a message to the rest of the Premier League this summer.
Schürrle might be more used to playing on the left wing, but he did contribute nine goals from the right during his last spell in England. Jokanovic tried a whole host of wingers on the right flank including Floyd Ayite, Neeskens Kebano and Lucas Piazon, but none of them claimed the spot for themselves. Fulham ended the season with the unpredictable – but significantly improved – Aboubakar Kamara operating out wide. With Schürrle coming in, we may just have found the missing link in the front three.
This could be a move to reinvigorate the German’s impressive career. He has found it tough at Borussia Dortmund, making just 33 appearances in the last two seasons, and will want to show that his best days are not behind him. There may be comparisons with Irish winger Damien Duff, who found a new lease life in a Fulham shirt as the Whites recorded their highest-ever league finish and reached a European final under Roy Hodgson. If Schürrle can have a similar impact, then Fulham could be well on their way to establishing themselves in the top flight again.
It was with some sadness that I learned last night that Ryan Fredericks’ three-year stay at Craven Cottage had come to an end as the Fulham full-back had agreed a deal to sign for West Ham when his contract expires at the end of this month. The pacey full-back had proven instrumental in the back four as well as providing an extra outlet for the likes of Tom Cairney and Kevin McDonald to be as effective as possible. His speed and sense of adventure made him a horn for many Championship defences and it will be interesting to see how he fares in the Premier League next season.
Even though he had only spent three years at Craven Cottage, Fredericks saw seen plenty of changes on and off the pitch and quickly became a popular figure with the supporters. He soon established himself as the first choice right back and was a natural fit for Slavisa Jokanovic’s style that asked an awful lot of the full-backs. His defensive contributions shouldn’t be overlooked either, especially during the 2017/2018 campaign when the Whites became a particularly miserly side. It seems slightly odd to me that Fredericks would want to be the club’s highest-paid player, as some reports on his departure have claimed, especially as he seemed fully committed to the cause of winning promotion in the closing weeks of the season.
Fredericks’ time at Fulham has ultimately been a huge success for the player and the club. With Jokanovic insisting on playing fast and fluent football, pace on the wings became essential to unlocking some tightly-packed defences. There are very few full-backs – even in the modern game – who can get a fan out of their seat but Fredericks’ lung-bursting runs down the right offered a sense of exhilaration and added an extra dimension to Fulham’s attacks. His partnership with Sone Aluko during the 2016-2017 season was almost flawless as the pair dovetailed brilliantly, almost from day one.
Upon losing a player, your thoughts always turn to how they might be replaced. There has been a bit of speculation that Fulham might enter the transfer market to supplement their squad, but I feel like we have a like for like replacement in Cyrus Christie. The Irish international was obviously bought in with an eye to succeeding Fredericks when he had refused to agree a new deal around Christmas time and I’m sure he’ll relish the prospect of playing Premier League football next season. Christie can provide more security against the aerial threat of attacking teams and he is versatile enough to play in a number of other positions if necessary. Fulham also have two very promising right backs in the shape of Marlon Fossey and Steven Sessegnon and Jokanovic has been more than willing to blood academy prospects during his time at the club.
As we reflect on Fredericks’ time with Fulham, the abiding memory will be that magical day at Wembley last month when the Whites regained their Premier League status. He was a pivotal part of a side that went 23 games undefeated – something which Fulham will probably never repeat – and gave 38,144 fans a day that they’ll never forget at Wembley. I wish him well for the future and send my sincerest thanks for helping get Fulham back to where we belong.
This evening at Craven Cottage marks the start of Fulham’s sprint to the Championship finishing line. It might be trite to call Fulham’s remaining five fixtures Cup finals, but it feels like that there is what they are. If last weekend was as close to perfect as possible – with Cardiff losing at home to Wolves on Friday night and Slavisa Jokanovic’s side claiming an important three points at Sheffield Wednesday, then tonight offers a massive opportunity to ramp up the pressure on Neil Warnock’s men.
There is, of course, a chance that the Whites could end the night in second having beaten Reading. That scenario depends on Cardiff slipping up again – this time at Aston Villa, whose own automatic promotion hopes might have been extinguished by their defeat at Norwich City on Saturday lunchtime. While Jokanovic has so far succeeded in keeping the focus solely on Fulham’s next fixture, some of the players did admit to feeling a little more pressure last weekend – and considering the implications of thee crunch games is only natural, after all.
For Fulham to obtain an automatic place in the Premier League in May, they will probably need to extend that phenomenal nineteen game unbeaten run by another five matches. Reading might be struggling – a shadow of the side that beat us in the play-off semi-final last year – but they won’t be a soft touch tonight. Sone Aluko, who was so pivotal to Fulham’s success last season, will be eager to prove a point on his first return to Craven Cottage and his team-mates will be wanting to impress new manager Paul Clement, who has taken over from Jaap Stam at the Madjeski Stadium.
At their best, Jokanovic’s side have looked mesmerising this season. During that outstanding unbeaten run since mid-December, Fulham have brushed aside the likes of Cardiff, Wolves and Aston Villa. There is an even a school of thought that the Whites’ dominance in some of these matches has not been reflected in the scoreline – for instance, Fulham could certainly have scored far more than just Aleksandar Mitrovic’s goal that edged them past Sheffield Wednesday at the weekend. In a tight run in where goal difference could become crucial, the Whites need to be ruthless in front of goal.
What was most pleasing about the win over the Owls was the patience Jokanovic’s side showed once it became clear that they weren’t about to blow Wednesday away. The composure of the likes of Kevin McDonald, Tom Cairney and Stefan Johansen, who kept the midfield ticking over when the temptation must have been to go for broke at times in the second half, was ultimately rewarded. It could well be another tense evening under the lights at the Cottage tonight – and the home fans will need to play their part. This Fulham side is full of confidence and have complete belief in their style of football and they should relish the opportunity to go out and prove their Premier League credentials.
Nothing is won yet. There could be twists and turns ahead in the next few weeks, especially with two tricky London derbies against Brentford and Millwall, who have their own promotion ambitions to further, looming on the horizon. As Jokanovic has said, all his team can do is win their games and keep up the pressure. Let’s hope that the Whites can clinch another valuable three points tonight.