It’s hard to escape the feeling that this afternoon’s trip to Preston North End will tell us an awful lot about Slavisa Jokanovic’s Fulham side. An encouraging opening win over the anointed promotion favourites Newcastle United set everybody’s hopes soaring and the manner with which a second-string comprised of eight academy graduates dealt with Leyton Orient in midweek did little to temper expectations. However impressive the start, the Championship remains Europe’s most unforgiving league and nothing is won in the first week of the season. For far too long, Fulham’s Achilles heel has been their dreadful away form and a seasoned manager in the shape of Simon Grayson will have primed his players to exploit any frailties on display at Deepdale.
Grayson’s careful nurturing of his North End side went criminally almost unremarked last season as Preston comfortably retained their place in English football’s second tier without many alarms. They were narrowly beaten at Reading on the opening weekend and the former Leeds manager has assembled a stronger side despite the departure of Adam Reach. Fulham fans will need little introduction to Ben Pringle, who hardly got an opportunity to showcase the kind of displays that made him such a fans’ favourite at Rotherham, whilst the permanent capture of former Manchester United goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard after a successful loan spell was a shrewd signing. Imposing forward Simon Makienok, who is expected to make his debut after shaking off a thigh problem, could prove a useful foil for the likes of Jermaine Beckford and Joe Garner, whilst the creativity of Daniel Johnson and Paul Gallagher should provide some serious ammunition.
Grayson’s organisation and his penchant for building from the back mean that the hosts will likely prove stubborn and difficult to break down. Defender Tom Clarke should return to the side after missing the EFL Cup win over Hartlepool with a hamstring problem and the hosts will want to improve on the showing at the Madjeski Stadium that Grayson was critical of. He claimed his side ‘were two or three yards off the pace’ in the first half and vowed to return to the high-tempo pressing game that characterised their success last season. Pockets of spaces in the midfield will be at a premium as a result. It will certainly be a lot tighter than Fulham’s 5-0 victory in a summer training game on the continent.
Jokanovic has a few decisions to make over team selection himself. Does he stick with David Button in goal after his accomplished debut against Newcastle or plump for the fit-again Marcus Bettinelli? Is there room for new signing Jozabed in the Fulham midfield or is including the Spanish playmaker too much of a risk after a handful of training sessions with his new team-mates? Perhaps, most intriguing of all, will be the choice to the lead the line. Fulham might have scored four goals in their opening two games but the questions about how successful their forward line will be in the long-term post-Dembele and McCormack remain. Cauley Woodrow staked an impressive claim for a starting spot with an expertly taken brace at Brisbane Road, but Matt Smith’s well-taken header opened the new term with such a flourish.
The corresponding fixture last year, won by the departed duo of strikers, did much to secure Fulham’s Championship status. That was a largely even contest until Dembele pounced on a half-parried McCormack free-kick in the closing stages. Grayson’s side were just as impressive in the draw at Craven Cottage earlier in the season – and this will be a significant yardstick against which to measure the August optimism. Deepdale has produced plenty of famous Fulham memories (from the David Beckham free-kick – on the same day that a certain Mick Conroy scored against us – to a stunning strike from Sean Davis) but if the Whites have serious ambitions of mounting a promotion push it would be the perfect place to serve notice that last Friday’s clean sheet was no fluke. That will be much easier said than done.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Bettinelli; Odoi, Malone, Madl, Kalas; McDonald, Christensen; Ayite, Cairney, Aluko; Smith. Subs: Button, Sessegnon, Ream, Parker, Tunnicliffe, Jozabed, Woodrow.