There’s a buoyancy around Craven Cottage that Fulham fans haven’t felt for the best part of three years. Doom, despondency and disaster have filled the air over the last seven weeks as things lurched from bad to worse since the club sacked Kit Symons and then the Fulham hot seat seemed like the job nobody wanted. Along came Slavisa Jokanovic, a man with a proven pedigree both in this division and across Europe, and the clouds lifted. Victory over Rotherham – no without a bit of fortune – followed and there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere today, perhaps the most encouraging part of the new head coach’s first in-house interview was the fact that he professed himself unsatisfied with the performance he watched on Tuesday night. Rotherham were beaten comfortably – but the scoreline flattered Fulham, who could have conceded far more than the dismal set-piece goal that they did. It can be no surprise to Jokanovic, having seen how jittery his new charges were at the back, that Fulham have conceded the joint second-highest number of goals in the Championship. His primary task will be tightening up a backline that has proven far too generous to opposition forwards since August.
Stopping Sheffield Wednesday, who have been in excellent form under Carlos Carvalhal, will be much easier said than done. The Owls sit four points off the play-off places and have improved since they brushed aside a lacklustre Fulham challenge at Hillsborough in September. On that day, Scottish midfielder Ross Wallace floated in a number of fine set-pieces deliveries that bamboozled the Fulham defence – and Wednesday could have scored far more than three they managed. The threats don’t just come from Wallace’s precise set-plays, but also from the prompting of Lewis McGugan, the busy nature of Barry Bannan and the energy of possibly one of the most impressive performers at Craven Cottage last season, Jeremy Helan.
Carvalhal can count on a couple of dangerous strikers to trouble whoever Jokanovic selects in defence. Fernando Forestieri has already shown he has what it takes to light up this division with Watford and the diminutive forward, who has already notched double figures for the Owls, should be refreshed for the trip to London tomorrow, having only come off the bench during Monday night’s defeat at Middlesbrough after the half-time break. Lucas João has proven a smart acquisition, having arrived from Nacional in the summer, and scored seven goals, whilst forcing his way into the Portuguese national side. That’s before we even get to the giant Atdhe Nuhiu and Gary Hooper, who so nearly joined Fulham on loan on transfer deadline day.
The real suspense surrounds Jokanovic’s first team selection. He has played a 3-5-2 system to great effect with Watford – and a variant of that has proven successful with this Fulham side, but whether the Serbian will be brave enough to significantly change a winning team remains to be seen. The big calls will probably be whether to alter a back four that, although shaky, held out against Rotherham, sticking with a central midfield combination of Scott Parker and Emerson Hyndman and who partners Ross McCormack up front. Moussa Dembele has had an excellent season so far, but dropping Cauley Woodrow after his dominant brace would be exceptionally harsh.
The mood music might be more favourable around Motspur Park this week and Fulham have a fine recent record against Wednesday. They are unbeaten in their last nine home league meetings and have won seven of them. Indeed, you have to go back to March 1967 for Wednesday’s last league success at Craven Cottage – and they have not kept a clean sheet for their last fourteen league visits. Carvalhal’s side, however, are the best Wednesday team of recent vintage and will offer a stern test for Jokanovic’s Fulham debut. He will at least have Stuart Gray, who was in charge of the south Yorkshire side until June, offering him insight on the opposition.
MY FULHAM XI (5-3-2): Lonergan; Fredericks, Garbutt, Stearman, Ream, Hutchinson; Parker, Cairney, Hyndman; McCormack, Woodrow. Subs: Lewis, Richards, Burn, O’Hara, Kacaniklic, Woodrow, Smith.