Fulham’s first contest after the international break is full of symbolism. Birmingham City were of course the side who ended Kit Symons’ reign at Craven Cottage last November with a swashbuckling display full of verve and power and their highly-regarded manager Gary Rowett was widely believed to be Shahid Khan’s first choice as Symons’ permanent replacement during a prolonged recruitment process that eventually led to Slavisa Jokanovic. Rowett, certainly one of England’s finest young managers, is still operating largely under the radar and brings his confident Blues’ side to London on the back of an impressive dismantling of promotion hopefuls Norwich City.
He has given short shrift to any suggestion that his charges will ‘sit in’ and defend at Craven Cottage. Rowett has build another side that much more than the sum of its parts and his major decision ahead of handing in the teamsheet will be whether to trust in the starting eleven who dispatched Norwich so handsomely or include Lukas Jutkiewicz, who arrived on loan from Premier League Burnley on deadline day, up front. It is not as if the visitors are shot of potency up front, though, with former Sheffield United forward Che Adams enjoying an impressive start to life in the Midlands, whilst Clayton Donaldson bagged a brace a fortnight ago and Jacques Maghoma offers pace and potency from the right.
Rowett’s side will certainly be well organised and packed full of Championship experience with the likes of Michael Morrison, Jonathan Grounds and Jonathan Spector knowing all about the blood and thunder of this division. The manager’s decision to deploy the talented midfielder David Davis in a more advanced role has paid handsome dividends already, with the Smethwick-born schemer having scored twice in five Championship outings. There will be plenty to keep Scott Parker and Kevin McDonald’s – Jokanovic’s preferred screening duo in front of the back four – on their toes.
Remaining focused on the task at hand seems to be something of a mantra for Jokanovic, who has already reminded his players that nothing is won in August. The head coach might be satisfied with Fulham’s summer recrutiment, as his fourteen new signings have stiffened a previously threadbare squad, but knows that having been an unheralded outfit in most of the pre-season previews, his team are now up there to be shot at. Handling the pressure of expectation will be just as important as replicating the quality of some of the early-season showings, something that Fulham fell well short of doing in their last home fixture against Cardiff City – having to be rescued by a late McDonald equaliser.
The Serbian faces a few selection dilemmas of his own. Does he disrupt a burgeoning centre back partnership by introducing one of Iceland’s Euro 2016 heroes, in Ragnar Sigurdsson, into the defence? That would probably necessitate moving Tomas Kalas, so calm and composed to date, to right back, where he operated with great success for Middlesbrough last term. Equally, there are a couple of midfield posers for Jokanovic to ponder over, as well. Can he squeeze either Jozabed, who offered moments of real quality in the EFL Cup giantkilling of Boro, or new signing Stefan Johansen into midfield without losing the rhythm established over the opening weeks of the campaign.
Perhaps the clearest call of all comes up front. Fulham’s search for a striker dominated the summer window, especially after the departures of Ross McCormack and Moussa Dembele. The creditable performances of Matt Smith and Cauley Woodrow rather papered over the cracks, but the arrival of Chris Martin – who has a remarkably similar Championship scoring record to his compatriot McCormack – in the closing minutes before the transfer deadline gave Jokanovic a forward with genuine pedigree at this level. It seemed surprising that Derby County, struggling in early season under Nigel Pearson, would let Martin leave for a divisional rival – and after his goalscoring return for Scotland last week – he should make his Fulham debut this afternoon. The fact that the former Norwich striker is about more than just goals – having created 198 chances over the course of his four past Championship seasons – suggests that he will fit this side’s emerging philosophy.
It is to be hoped that Martin, an imposing forward with an eye for goal, will compliment the way Jokanovic has set up this new-look Fulham side, with several cultured midfielders interchanging at well. There was a pleasing debut for Neeskens Kebano, after just a day at the club and less than 48 hours after a Europa League farewell for Genk, at Blackburn, whilst Tom Cairney underlined his increasing influence to this side with the dramatic stoppage-time winner against his old side. Sone Aluko’s ceaseless scuttling behind a lone striker has been a feature of the early weeks of the season – and if Martin fits in handily, he could be the missing piece of Jokanovic’s jigsaw.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Button; Odoi, Sessegnon, Madl, Kalas; McDonald, Parker; Cairney, Kebano, Aluko; Martin. Subs: Bettinelli, Ream, Sigurdsson, Johansen, Christensen, Piazon, Smith.