The gap between Fulham’s achievements at Craven Cottage and away from home is as vast as it possibly could be. Slavisa Jokanovic’s side remain unbeaten on the road this season and have outplayed each of their opponents in a string of displays that have hinted at the quality necessary to achieve promotion back to the Premier League, only to continue to be ridiculously generous on their own patch. It is something the Serbian reflected on after last weekend’s encouraging victory at Barnsley, but the quest to make his team tougher to beat on our own patch was undermined by the concession of two first-half penalties against Norwich City on Tuesday.
The character and determination of this new-look side is not doubt – otherwise they would have meekly surrendered in the second half in midweek against one of the favourites for promotion. That certainly would have been the case last season, but the desire typified by the way Lucas Piazon snapped into a challenge to spark the move that lead to Chris Martin’s equaliser could quite easily have carried Fulham all the way to all three points. Putting together the complete performance still seems to elude Jokanovic but the achievements of the last seven days have at least gone somewhere to expunging the doom and gloom of the derby defeat to QPR.
Today’s trip to the Midlands might just represent the toughest examination of Fulham’s new-found resilience away from home. Aston Villa under Roberto di Matteo resembled Fulham circa 2014 – a club confident they could breeze back to the top flight having supplemented their talented squad with a renowned goalscorer at this level (Ross McCormack). The similarities even run to the kamikaze defending that ultimately cost the Italian his job. Villa moved quickly to bring in a Championship specialist in Steve Bruce – brushing aside any local difficulty that might result from his years with Birmingham City – and are already reaping the rewards judging by their late win at Reading in midweek.
Bruce has quickly made his mark, asserting that the squad he had inherited were far from fit enough after the 1-1 draw with Wolves, and a man of his experience won’t suffer fools gladly. Even though his new charges sit nineteenth just two points above the relegation zone, the sheer number of points left to play for and the unpredictability of the Championship, means you’d be foolish to bet against the man who has had won more promotions from this league than any other manager fashioning another trip to the play-offs from this inauspicious start. Four points from his first two games suggest that he’s already fixed a few of the problems.
A master of winning ugly, Bruce is also never knowingly underprepared. He’ll know just how Jokanovic has rebuild Fulham over the summer – but the Whites frailties against the high press and the susceptibility of exposed full backs won’t have escaped his attention. For now, the new Villa manager will have to do without Jack Grealish – suspended for three games for violent conduct – as well as injured defenders Tommy Elphick and Micah Richards. The pace and power of Albert Adomah, who is facing a race against time to prove his fitness, would be a real miss, but you can bet McCormack, who only appeared as a late substitute at the Madjeski, will be desperate to make his mark.
Despite Fulham’s fine comeback against the Canaries, there are still plenty of question marks against Jokanovic’s side. The defence appears alarmingly brittle without the reassuring presence of Tomas Kalas, who will miss the trip to Villa Park as he is still sidelined by a hamstring problem. The decision to play Tim Ream ahead of Michael Madl has more to do with the American being the only left-sided centre back still at the club and Scott Malone, so impressive at Oakwell a week ago, might be wondering whether he’ll be giving up his place to Ryan Sessegnon after enduring a nightmare against Norwich.
The Parker-McDonald axis at the base of the midfield, which afforded the defence such excellent protection in the early part of the season, suddenly looks limited and unambitious. Stefan Johansen has stitched together his best games in a Fulham shirt over the past week – although quite where the Norwegian will feature should Tom Cairney return to the starting line-up is anyone’s guess. And could Ryan Fredericks, who introduction as a substitute in the second half gave Fulham more vitality down their right, make a first start of the campaign either at right back or in a more advanced role?
Fulham’s recent record against Villa – such as it counts for anything at all – is pretty impressive, with the Whites having lost just one of their last eight league meetings. A hero to rival Hugo Rodallega, whose late intervention at Villa Park back in April 2014 had us all dreaming of another great escape, would be more than welcome.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Button; Fredericks, Sessegnon, Sigurdsson, Madl; Parker, Johansen; Cairney, Piazon, Aluko; Martin. Subs: Bettinelli, Ream, Malone, Tunnicliffe, Christensen, Kebano, Smith.