So, tonight’s the night. After a summer gloriously free of fretting about how goals a porous Fulham defence would concede, the Championship season kicks off with the visit of the side most fancied to go up as champions to Craven Cottage. Newcastle United, still managed by Rafa Benitez, will represent perhaps the stiffest possible test of the rebuild that Slavisa Jokanovic freely admits is ongoing in south west London.
The visitors, cheered up by their customary large and loud support, will travel in good heart following a strong pre-season and careful husbandry of a strong squad for this level, supplemented by the summer arrivals of the likes of Matt Ritchie, Mohamed Diame and Dwight Gayle amongst others. They don’t have the best of records at Fulham, however, having lost their last five meetings at Craven Cottage, but will be hoping to start the season on the front foot, after Benitez spoke of having revamped the culture at the club over the summer. The pace and power in the forward areas spells danger, whilst you would expect newly-installed club captain Jamaal Lascalles to be a much more assured performer at this level, where he has ample experience with Nottingham Forest, then in a stop-start first top flight campaign.
Six weeks has rather changed the questions people are asking about Jokanovic’s side. Where previously defensive resolution and discipline was a real issue, the summer acquisitions of Chelsea centre back Thomas Kalas, successfully promoted from this division with Middlesbrough last year, Michael Madl – after a successful loan spell – and Denis Odoi, have given the back line a more reassuring look. The doubts persist at left back, where Odoi might have played tonight where it not for Ryan Fredericks’ untimely injury, and the choice is between new arrival Scott Malone or teenager Ryan Sessegnon. The youngster’s assured pre-season displays, especially against Andros Townsend in the win over Crystal Palace, should count in his favour, although Brisbane Road on Tuesday night might be a more suitable setting for his first-team debut.
The departure of Moussa Dembele and Ross McCormack, who contributed forty goals to Fulham’s forgettable campaign last year, threatens to turn the team from a free-scoring entity in one struggling to test the league’s defences. Further additions are expected before the close of the transfer window and, although there is certainly something in the way Jokanovic has successfully altered the side’s shape to utilise the pace and trickery of Sone Aluko and Floyd Ayite, the prospect of starting with Cauley Woodrow or Matt Smith this evening suggests a deficit of genuine quality in front of goal. Aluko should operate from the deeper number ten role, where he impressed in scoring one goal and creating another against Palace, and much may depend on the successful interchanges between him, Ayite and Tom Cairney, behind the main striker.
Opening games can often provide a false dawn. Fulham won at Sunderland in 2013 and eventually surrendered their Premier League status pretty meekly come the end of the season. The club’s championship campaigns have been characterised by both starts which a makeshift squad has had to battle against. Tonight’s test is tough but, as Scott Parker has suggested in the build up, it may provide a useful marker of where this team are – and Fulham are certainly up for surprising the pundits, who have largely predicted another season of struggle. One thing’s for certain – Jokanovic, who has insisted his side are under the same level of pressure as Newcastle, won’t entertain a lack of endeavour or application.
MY FULHAM XI (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Odoi, Malone, Kalas, Madl; McDonald, Parker, Cairney; Ayite, Aluko, Woodrow. Subs: Button, Ream, Stearman, Sessegnon, Tunicliffe, Christensen, Smith.