Much of the discussion since the conclusion of Saturday’s rather riveting draw with Cardiff City has centred around just how much control Slavisa Jokanovic has at Fulham. The head coach’s rather pointed remarks during his post-match press conference about the influence of American statistical analyst Craig Kline has led some journalists to suggest that he might walk should not receive sufficient backing before the close of the transfer window and the fevered reaction has threatened to overshadow what has been an excellent start on the field.
The news yesterday that Fulham had concluded a deal to sign Ragnar Sigurdsson, one of England’s Icelandic conquerors at Euro 2016, might serve to settle everybody down a bit. The 30 year-old had been linked with a move to a number of Premier League sides but instead arrived at Motspur Park on a two-year deal – and Fulham are insistent that their spending doesn’t stop there. The rumoured arrivals of another attacking midfielder and a forward should strengthen what is a threadbare squad – as shown by the likelihood of Jokanovic throwing in the kids again for tonight’s EFL Cup clash with Middlesbrough.
Eight academy graduates were involved in the first round victory over Leyton Orient with none looking particularly out of place. With the trip to Blackburn at the weekend taking priority given Fulham’s unbeaten start in the league, the Serbian is expected to shuffle his pack once again. We will probably see the two men who have became Fulham’s youngest goalscorer within a fortnight of each other – Dennis Adeniran followed up his header at Orient with a superb strike from long-range in the U23s victory over Blackburn and could come into midfield, whilst Ryan Sessegnon, so impressive in his early senior career, should start after coming off the bench to score on Saturday. The duo could be joined by Luca de la Torre, the highly-rated American youth international, who enjoyed an encouraging debut at Brisbane Road, although this might be an appropriate setting to give Jozabed, signed from Spain ten days ago, more of a taste of English football than the six minutes he got at Elland Road as a substitute.
It is likely that both Fulham and Middlesbrough will regard this competition as a bit of a distraction. Aitor Karanka, for my money one of the most underrated managers in the English game, has already indicated he will make several changes after his side’s accomplished win at Sunderland on Sunday. The Spaniard did superbly to take Boro up to the Premier League with such a flourish last season and he has assembled a squad that should have a decent chance of preventing them reprising their yo-yo years of the late nineties. Karanka will hand a first start of the season to Jordan Rhodes, who has long been linked with a move to Craven Cottage, who will have a point to prove having been left out of the Scotland squad by Gordon Strachan this week. Rhodes regularly troubled defences in the Championship during his years with Blackburn is being tracked by several sides with promotion aspirations this campaign.
Karanka will also reintroduce former Liverpool defender Daniel Ayala, who has been sidelined with a hamstring injury, back into the heart of the defence and Fabio, signed from Cardiff City over the summer, should play at right back. There will be no Craven Cottage reunion for James Husband, who enjoyed two successful loan spells over the past couple of years with the Whites, as he is unavailable due to a shoulder problem, and injuries also rob Middlesbrough of the likes of captain Grant Leadbitter, Martin de Roon and Bernado Espinosa. The quality in Boro’s squad, though, should still represent a significant test for Fulham’s youngsters, who will be eager to make an impression given the opportunity of first-team football ahead.
Fulham’s recent record against Middlesbrough is poor. They have failed to score in four of their last five meetings, which is something that Cauley Woodrow – if he is given another chance to lead the line after a disappointing display against Cardiff on Saturday – will be keen to rectify. With Jokanovic concentrating on recruiting more forward options in the final days of the transfer window, both Woodrow and Matt Smith will need to seize every opportunity to impress.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-1-1): Bettinelli; Grimmer, Sessegnon, Stearman, Ream; Tunnicliffe, Adeniran, Edun, Christensen; Jozabed; Woodrow. Subs: Joronen, Kavanagh, Kalas, Parker, Cairney, de la Torre, Smith.