The visit of Cardiff City represents something of a test for the new Fulham side Slavisa Jokanovic is trying to build. How do they respond to the disappointment of conceding a last-gasp equaliser at Leeds on Tuesday night? Can they, as Tom Cairney suggested pretty eloquently in the immediate aftermath of that setback, use it motivation to fuel any fine performance? And can this bunch of players take the optimism and increased expectation that comes with a surprise unbeaten opening start in their stride and deliver another fine performance?
You know that Jokanovic himself will have left his charges in little doubt as to what he expects. In his press conference on Friday, he said he wants his side to dominate matches as they did for large periods at Elland Road in midweek. Dominance that is more accurately reflected on the scoreboard would be welcome, though, as for all Fulham’s pretty football – and the fact they struck the woodwork twice – they left themselves open to the kind of sucker punch that Championship football is renowned for.
The relative lack of depth in Fulham’s squad means Jokanovic’s selection issues are relatively straight forward. Only Ryan Fredericks is missing and the back four has functioned quite impressively in front of David Button so far. The only decision the Serbian has to make in the defence is whether to give Ryan Sessegnon another run in the first team ahead of Scott Malone, who will be keen to prove a point against his former employers. The defensive midfield axis of Scott Parker and Kevin McDonald has served Fulham well in the opening weeks of the season, but there has to be a question mark over whether Parker, now 35, can manage a fourth game in the space of twelve days. There is the option of freshening things up with the energy of Lasse Vigen Christensen or the industry of Ryan Tunnicliffe or perhaps Jozabed if Jokanovic prefers a more attacking option.
Cardiff head to London on the back of their first win of the season against Blackburn Rovers in midweek and hoping to continue their relatively successful record against Fulham. The Bluebirds are now managed by former Fulham midfielder Paul Trollope, who is expected to continue with a three-man central defence, and will want to carry more of an attacking threat, given that all their league goals this season have been scored by opposition players. His team selection will depend on the fitness of Lee Peltier, who limped off with an ankle problem, and Jazz Richards, who has struggled with calf and knee problems. Richards, of course, will be desperate to prove a point after his Fulham career rather petered out towards the end, but his start in Wales hasn’t been without its problems either.
Cardiff’s strength in midfield will need countering. Icelandic hero Aaron Gunnarsson seems to have forced his way back into Trollope’s plans and the class of Peter Whittingham and creativity of Joe Ralls make quite a formidable central trio. Recent arrival Emyr Huws, who had been so impressive on loan at Huddersfield during the last campaign, is hoping to banish the painful memories of missing on Wales’ memorable Euro 2016 campaign this summer – and Fulham will need to watch his silky touches, even if – as expected – he starts on the bench this afternoon. Lex Immers, who made such an impact last term, and Anthony Pilkington should continue to lead the line, with Frederic Gonougbe – perhaps still scarred by that horrible miss at Birmingham on the opening weekend of the season – making do with a spot on the bench.
The Bluebirds will be backed by a sizable and vocal travelling support so setting the right tone early on, as Fulham did against Newcastle on the opening night, will be important. The impact of the new-found pace in wide areas, typified by Floyd Ayite, shouldn’t be understated and the interchanging of those attacking options behind Matt Smith, likely to be deployed as a lone striker again, gives Jokanovic’s side a new found purpose and fluidity. If the home side can start with purpose – and remain watchful at the back – they should pose inconsistent Cardiff a few problems.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Button; Odoi, Sessegnon, Madl, Kalas; McDonald, Christensen; Ayite, Cairney, Aluko; Smith. Subs: Bettinelli, Malone, Ream, Tunnicliffe, Parker, Jozabed, Woodrow.