Calling the third game of the season a ‘must win’ match seems fairly melodramatic but Fulham’s start to life back in the Championship has been so disorientating it lends itself to such an overstatement. Felix Magath has talked of a need to pick up three points against Wolves tonight after the disappointment of being beaten by both Ipswich and Millwall and, even if you don’t glance at a table seriously until ten games in, a victory would be a welcome boost to the confidence of a young side.
The German coach has shown considerable faith in the club’s much-vaunted Academy set-up as he assembles a line-up totally unrecognisable from the one that was relegated last season. The only survivor from Fulham’s meek surrender at the foot of the Premier League is captain Scott Parker, who spoke of the new-look side needing to become smarter as they seek to adjust to the physicality and unforgiving nature of the Championship. Parker’s experience is considerable but should the defeats keep piling up – they may be a question mark against Magath’s seemingly boundless confidence in a number of young starlets.
That would be a shame because few of the younger generation have let him so down so far. Moussa Dembele struggled at Ipswich but had little service, while Emerson Hyndman slotted in alongside Parker in central midfield as if he’d be playing at this level for decades rather than days. George Williams showed plenty of promise on his full debut to suggest that he can offer the width and penetration that Magath’s narrow diamond sorely lacks, whilst Patrick Roberts has terrified frightened full-backs in his two cameos from the bench.
The greatest concerns lie at either end of the pitch. Bar dropping a routine cross at Ipswich, Jesse Joronen hasn’t looked overawed by his promotion to the first team. Indeed, he made three superb saves to keep Fulham in a game they were otherwise dominating against Millwall on Saturday and, while his distribution still looks a little shaky, the worry remains chiefly with the defence in front of him. The onus is on both full-backs to provide the width in Magath’s favoured diamond formation and the absence of either Tim Hoogland or Kostas Stafylidis in defensive positions allowed Ricardo Fuller’s cross to reach Martyn Woolford for Millwall’s decisive goal at the weekend. The new-look defence will need to be a lot tighter tonight.
Fulham so far have little to show for their domination of possession and territory in both games. Only Hoogland’s deflected strike late on at Portman Road – which sparked a late rally as the home side dropped deeper and deeper – has beaten an opposition goalkeeper and, with sides set to apt the Millwall tactic of sitting back and playing on our frustration, Fulham will need to move the ball quicker and be more inventive to open them up. Central to that will be the form of Ross McCormack, who is expected to start tonight after enlivening Fulham’s performance from the bench at the weekend, but whether he will have a partner against Wolves – and who it could possibly be – remains to be seen.
Starting with just Hugo Rodallega up top was a mistake as the Colombian was left horribly isolated in the first half and struggled to impose himself on Millwall’s centre backs. Rodallega spurned a couple of presentable chances in the second period as Fulham pressed forward and he may pay with his place in the starting line-up this evening. Cauley Woodrow, an unused substitute against Millwall, was lively from the bench at Portman Road and his understanding with some of his old team-mates in the youth team (like the irrepressible Roberts) could prove crucial.
The Whites would crave an early goal against a Wolves side who endured a similarly frustrating Saturday at Rotherham. Kenny Jackett is in the market for a striker as he plans their return to English fotball’s second tier, but his team looked accomplished enough in downing one of the promotions favourites, Norwich, on the opening weekend of the season. Whether the Wolves manager will have both of his summer signings available remains to be seen. Midfielder Tommy Rowe came through forty-five minutes of Under-21 action on Monday but a late decision on whether his broken toe can be risked will be made tonight, whilst Fulham will need to be wary of Dutch midfielder Rajiv van La Parra and Bakary Sako, who was thought to be close to a move to Craven Cottage last season.
Jackett’s side are well-drilled, organised and with the experience of Kevin McDonald in midfield, will provide a real test of a young Fulham side’s resolve. Judging the season on the outcome of the first three games is risky. Reading had a dreadful start and won the division a few years ago, while last season saw Blackburn rise from the bottom three to the brink of the play-offs, but momentum is critical in what is a notoriously tight league. Magath will be hoping his side can convert their impressive play into three points tonight.
MY FULHAM XI (4-1-3-2): Jornonen; Hoogland, Stafylidis, Bodurov, Burgess; Parker; Hyndman, David, Eisfield; McCormack, Woodrow. Subs: Bettinelli, Hutchinson, Kavanagh, G. Williams, Roberts, Rodallega, Dembele.