After the drudgery of another international week, Fulham’s Championship campaign resumes this afternoon with a tough test in the shape of Carlos Carvalhal’s Sheffield Wednesday at Craven Cottage. The Owls might have lost their last two fixtures but that will make last season’s surprise package more determined to resurrect their own promotion push, especially as Wednesday haven’t lost three straight games since May 2014. They did the double over Fulham last season – ruining Slavisa Jokanovic’s first game in charge back in January – and will surely provide a stiffer test than Huddersfield or Brentford have managed in recent weeks.
The optimism appears to have returned to Motspur Park after those two resounding results have left Fulham within touching distance of the play-off places but Jokanovic – every inch the hard taskmaster – will not tolerate any resting on laurels. Much will depend on whether the international break has ruptured Fulham’s momentum, as it did during September when the Whites’ impressive start to the season abruptly ran out of petrol, or if the tantalising taste of success has merely whetted the appetite for a serious tilt at the top six.
Jokanovic has the luxury of a virtually fully-fit squad to chose from – only Neeskens Kebano has reported back from international duty with a minor niggle – and will probably pick the same side that so handsomely dismantled Huddersfield and earned the local bragging rights at Griffin Park. His tactical tweak, jettisoning a holding midfield in favour of a more adventurous central midfield pairing of Tom Cairney, currently the league leader in terms of assists, and an in-form Stefan Johansen, has allowed Fulham to be far more progressive in possession – but the success of that switch also owed much to our opponents offering time and space on the ball, something an experienced coach like Carvahal will hardly be likely to repeat.
Wednesday might have lost their last two games – demoralising defeats to Derby County and Ipswich – but Carvahal has been quick to draw on the restorative qualities of an international break, allowing his players to get their heads together and focus on correcting the mistakes that have handed their opponents the initiative. His players certainly seem in positive mood, with midfielder David Jones talking up the possibility of a return to winning ways in London. They certainly have every reason to be confident – having lost just once in their last nine league contests with Fulham, when the Whites scored four in December 2014.
Carvahal has been criticised for the rather formulaic nature of his midfield in recent weeks but, for the all the brickbats, the centre of the park remains Wednesday’s real strength. Sam Hutchison, who shot to prominence as a trainee who battled all sorts of injuries and misfortune to forge a career just down the King’s Road, has been nothing short of sensational at the heart of the defence but can also be utilised as a defensive midfield shield, whilst Fulham will need no reminding of the creative abilities of Barry Bannan, who tore them to shrewds at Hillsborough last term, or the danger of allowing Ross Wallace to shoot from long range – like he did to settle Jokanovic’s opening match in charge.
The Owls prospects are also likely to be boosted by the return of Portuguese forward Lucas Joao, who is set to feature in the first team for the first time since August having been sidelined with a troublesome groin injury. The pacey youngster will present a real threat to a Fulham back four that has previously been frightened by pure rapidity, whilst former Fulham transfer target Gary Hooper is in ominous form, having played a part four of Wednesday’s last five goals. Then, there’s the robust presence of Scotland striker Steven Fletcher, recently returned to these shores after an improbable loan spell with Marseille. With the mercurial Fernando Forrestieri having rekindled his love for the Owls, Kevin McDonald – if retained as a single shield in front of the back four – could be in for a taxing afternoon.
The onus will be on Fulham to exploit any early Wednesday nerves and come out of the blocks in a manner similar to the way they managed in their last two outings. A repeat of the clinical finishing that carried them past Huddersfield might be asking a bit much, but Jokanovic will certainly want to see his side impose themselves on proceedings in the manner they did at Griffin Park – where the intensity of a local derby quickly disappeared as the Whites were on the front foot. Fulham have struggled for a consistency of tempo so far this season – and finding the fluidity that allows the likes of Cairney and Sone Aluko to float between the lines will be absolutely crucial.
You sense that, after the late October euphoria, we’ll find out an awful lot about Fulham’s promotion prospects in the next couple of weeks. Wednesday might have slipped down the table of late but they remain a tough side to beat and have the benefit of a season’s worth of grinding out results on their way to last season’s play-off final. They will provide a stern examination before the trip to Brighton and Hove Albion next weekend – and if any of Jokanovic’s men think they can dazzle their way through this assignment, they’ll be in for a rude awakening.
MY FULHAM XI (4-1-2-3): Button; Fredericks, Malone, Kalas, Sigurdsson; McDonald; Cairney, Johansen; Aluko, Piazon, Martin. Subs: Bettinelli, Sessegnon, Madl, Christensen, Parker, Ayite, Smith.