Fulham’s fine away form faces one of its sternest tests of the new season when they come up against promotion chasing Brighton and Hove Albion this afternoon. The south coast side have picked up where they left off last term putting the crushing disappointment of defeat in the play-off semi-finals behind them to sit second in the Championship table, with a handy four point gap over the chasing pack. Facing Slavisa Jokanovic’s side – even after the Serbian’s successful summer revamp – will hold no fear for Chris Hughton’s men, who have won their last three meetings with the Cottagers, and can extend their unbeaten run to twelve league matches at the AMEX Stadium later today.
There will be a familiar face in the Brighton dugout for the first time this afternoon as well. Former Fulham midfielder Paul Trollope has replaced Colin Calderwood as Hughton’s number two, taking up the assistant manager’s position after his first managerial role with Cardiff City ended in disappointment. The links between the two sides don’t end there. David Stockdale, who has kept nine Championship clean sheets with Albion so far this term, left Craven Cottage for the Seagulls shortly after the Londoners were relegated from the top flight as part of Felix Magath’s madcap fire sale and the goalkeeper has been joined on the south coast by midfielder Steve Sidwell, who is enjoying a fine Indian summer to his career, encapsulated by the incredible goal he scored from the halfway line at Bristol City recently. Former Fulham full-back Liam Rosenior is sidelined by injury.
Breaking down a Brighton side with one of the tightest defensive records in the division will be tricky. Jokanovic has called for focus and intensity from his team, both of which were lacking somewhat in the disappointing draw with Sheffield Wednesday last weekend – but he will also want his tactical approach to be clearly adopted by his players. Saturday’s game arguably represents the toughest test of Fulham’s new-found away supremacy since they travelled to Villa Park last month and the Whites carefree, expansive football was replaced by a gritty, safety-first approach which counted against them after a horrific error from David Button handed Steve Bruce’s side the initiative. The lesson of the last few weeks has to be that the fluid football Fulham have played against the likes of Huddersfield and Brentford makes them a match for most sides in the league – and it could set the tone for a mouth-watering encounter with Albion not short of attacking talent [see Glenn Murphy’s goals and Anthony Knockaert’s pace and trickery down the wing].
The Serbian shouldn’t take too long to consider tinkering with a line-up that has seen Fulham take seven points from their past three matches. With only Scott Parker missing through suspension, it is likely that Jokanovic will opt for the same side that has revived hopes of a top six finish. The only consideration will play whether to replace Lucas Piazon, who was largely anonymous against Wednesday last weekend, with the pace and potency of a fit-again Floyd Ayite after the Togolese winger added some much-needed verve in the final third when he came off the bench. Increasing the protection offered to the back four would also be an option but, considering that Jokanovic was happy to entrust a feisty west London derby to Kevin McDonald alone, you would expect not to dilute his attacking instincts ahead of this contest either.
Much was made of Fulham’s resilience to grab a late equaliser against the Owls having trailed for much of the contest. There certainly seems to be greater character about this side than the previous two teams who have graced the Championship in the black and white. Brighton will be a good place to find out about Fulham’s grit and determination after the 5-0 capitulation at the AMEX last year. Jokanovic publically questioned the commitment of some of his players that night – and it will be intriguing to see how Fulham match up this time around. A sizeable travelling contingent will be hoping for a much tighter affair, but Albion certainly have the capability to blow opponents away with the quality of some of their football.
Plenty will depend on the solidity of a Fulham defence that has so far stood up to the challenge on the road. The rugged Ragnar Sigurdsson, so bullish in his interview ahead of this game, has struck up an encouraging partnership with Tomas Kalas in central defence and shows signs of adjusting to the cut and thrust of Championship football. The attacking instincts of Fulham’s full backs are well known, but the defensive capabilities of Ryan Fredericks, should he successfully shake off a hamstring concern, and Malone will be severely tested by Hughton’s wingers from the first whistle. If the visitors can establish a solid base from the outset, they will have a great chance of achieving the kind of result that could mark themselves out as serious contenders for a top six berth.
MY FULHAM XI (4-1-2-3): Button; Fredericks, Malone, Kalas, Sigurdsson; McDonald; Johansen, Cairney; Aluko, Piazon, Cairney; Martin. Subs: Bettinelli, Odoi, Sessegnon, Madl, Christensen, Ayite, Smith.