Slavisa Jokanovic is steadfastly refusing to get carried away with Fulham’s encouraging start to the new season. Quietly pleased with the three wins his side have carved out, he has ensured that his team won’t rest on their laurels and that the club suits are left in no doubt he needs more acquistions – this is a man who knows how to get promoted from the Championship after all. Nothing is won in August and the six points garnered so far, however pleasing they might have been, could prove to a mere footnote come the close of the campaign.
The relentless nature of this league says a tricky trip to Leeds come hot on the heels of Saturday’s visit to Preston, which Fulham negotiated effectively. You get the sense that Elland Road won’t be as placid as Deepdale was with Leeds languishing at the foot of the table, without a point, and new manager Garry Monk, however much he insists otherwise, wondering how much support he will get from the ever-unpredictable Massimo Cellino (although today’s rumours link a Chinese firm with buying him out). The former Swansea boss might experiment again, having tinkered with his personnel and formation in the two previous defeats, but he badly needs a result – and putting a serious dent in Fulham’s 100% start would be the perfect way to settle a few Yorkshire nerves.
Sol Bamba has already emphasised how crucial Leeds perceive this fixture to be – ‘every game is big. But this one is very important for us’ – and you can expect the passionate Elland Road support to be in full voice long before kick-off. Some of the raucousness might be defused by the fact that Ross McCormack’s place in the Fulham front line will probably be filled by Matt Smith, whose departure for London was much less acrimonious for the Leeds fans, but the three points rather than any bragging rights will be what Monk is after. To that end, he will hope that Chris Wood will deliver a display to silence the boo-boys and that Leeds can offer more bite in midfield than they managed in the rather insipid home defeat to Birmingham on Saturday. Liam Bridcutt’s return to Leeds might have been finalised this morning, but he won’t be available to add that ballast this evening.
Fulham travel north confident that they can use Leeds’ lacklustre start to their advantage. The sort of defensive diligence that characterised their opening wins over Newcastle and Preston will be needed in abundance tonight – and if Monk switches back to a 4-2-3-1 system then full-backs Dennis Odoi and Scott Malone might be in for a serious test. Malone, who many believe was signed from Cardiff City as a back up left back, has put in two creditable displays but was caught out by former Leeds striker Jermaine Beckford for Preston’s goal on Saturday – and the presence of the likes of Kemar Roofe, so impressive for Oxford last term, and Marcus Antonsson should keep him on his toes.
Tom Cairney, who has been revelling in the freer role he has been afforded by Jokanovic so far this season, will prove crucial to Fulham’s prospects. The midfielder, who was released by Leeds at sixteen because he was considered too slight to make it in professional football, marked his return to Elland Road with a goal last season and is coming off a rich vein of form, which included a sensational run to set up Fulham’s second at Preston. Cairney’s interchanges with the pacey Floyd Ayite and Sone Aluko has prosed Championship defences all sorts of problems so far – and Jokanovic will hope that Fulham can probe away at a Leeds defence that has proven prone to defensive lapses to date.
The Fulham head coach’s only choices will be around how much to tinker with a winning formula. Scott Parker was imperious at Deepdale but, as vital as his experience is, will his body have recovered from the demands of another action-packed 90 minutes in order to start this evening, alongside Kevin McDonald, who picked up a knock in the closing stages of the win at Preston. Fulham’s newest arrival, Jozabed, might be considered for a place in the squad after a couple more training sessions with his new team-mates, but you get the sense that steel rather than silky skill will be needed initially to establish a foothold in the contest.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Button; Odoi, Malone, Kalas, Madl; Parker, McDonald; Ayite, Cairney. Aluko, Smith. Subs: Joronen, Sessegnon, Ream, Stearman, Tunnicliffe, Jozabed, Woodrow.