Tonight will tell us a lot about the character of Slavisa Jokanovic’s side. Having started better than all of our wildest expectations, the paucity of the performance against Birmingham City on Saturday was the first unpleasant surprise of the new campaign. The all-exacting Championship schedule means Fulham have been given an immediate opportunity to right those wrongs and, judging from the words coming out of the camp in the aftermath of the defeat by Blues, that is exactly what the players intend to do.
It is refreshing in this world of bluster and hyperbole to hear a coach admit to his failings. Jokanovic didn’t quite exempt his players from blame following the final whistle on Saturday – there were far too many basic errors for that to happen – but he did take overall responsibility for the reverse. That was almost an implicit acceptance that he had got the balance of his midfield wrong in the absence of Scott Parker and erred in not introducing Chris Martin – if not from the start, then earlier than he did. Fulham looked flustered and disjointed for the first time since May at the weekend and it wasn’t helped by the fact that Gary Rowett’s meticulous planning allowed Birmingham to take full advantage.
The only positive to take out of such a lacklustre display was the fight this new side showed. Despite being down to ten men and largely outplayed, Fulham were still in with a chance of grabbing a point when the game entered injury time. In seasons past, the match would have been well and truly over long before that. Changes will have to be made tonight. The enforced one will see Ragnar Sigurdsson make his debut in place of the suspended Michael Madl at the heart of the defence, whilst Parker – if fit – should return to the heart of the midfield. Whether this will help confirm Kevin McDonald’s nervy weekend display as just an anomaly remains to be seen.
One thing is for certain – Burton will be no pushovers. There are one of the good news stories of the lower leagues in recent years and any footballing romantics will have been delighted by how they have responded to the return of Nigel Clough. Clough, a canny operator and deep thinker about the game, has already delivered one famous result at Craven Cottage when he was in charge of Sheffield United and has already upset one of his old clubs by beating Derby 1-0 in front of the Sky cameras the other week. Burton are honest, well-organised and run through brick walls for each other. It is refreshing to see just how far that gets you in this era of hype and million-pound pay cheques.
It isn’t all just hard work and buying into the right philosophy, though. Burton have some excellent footballers – and we all remember just how close they came to bundling Martin Jol’s side out of the League Cup a couple of years ago. Clough might be without the talented Lucas Akins, who has starred in the Brewers’ last four fixtures from wing-back, and John Mousinho – currently troubled by a hamstring problem tonight – but may be able to call upon the services of Shaun Barker again, which is remarkable given that the former Derby man had spent four and half years out of the game until his return against the Rams last month.
Albion, full of goals during their weeks in the Championship, have put together a four-match unbeaten run in the league and arguably had the better of a 1-1 draw against Wolves at the weekend. They certainly won’t fear a trip to Craven Cottage and are unlikely to sit deep and allow Fulham the ball in the manner of some of the other sides in this league. Jackson Irvine, an Australian midfielder who Albion broke their transfer record to sign from Ross County this summer, has scored three times already during the campaign and will need watching, as will defender Tom Naylor, who has also found the net on three occasions.
Fulham will be desperate to get back to winning ways and avoid squandering the early season momentum that has given everybody around the club such optimism after two dire seasons in the Championship. Burton, high on confidence and full of energy, will represent one of the stiffest tests of Jokanovic’s confidence in his players. Tonight’s contest should tell us plenty about whether Fulham are merely August wonders or if this new-look side has it in them to last the pace at the right end of the table.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Button; Odoi, Sessegnon, Siggurdson, Kalas; Parker, McDonald; Cairney, Ayite, Aluko; Martin. Subs: Bettinelli, Ream, Tunnicliffe, Christensen, Jozabed, Kebano, Smith.