Boxing Day sees Fulham travel to Portman Road and prompt the inevitable comparisons with the 10-1 win over Ipswich from 1963. Unbelievably, the Whites haven’t won a league game against Town since then – and Slavisa Jokanovic knows just how tough a test will be awaiting his side in Suffolk this afternoon. If there was a manager who could encapsulate the competitiveness and physicality of the Championship, it probably would be wily old Mick McCarthy and his Ipswich team will not give an inch as they look to build on last week’s win over Wigan, which arrested an alarming run of four games without a win.
McCarthy, whose sides are known for their abrasiveness, will probably stick with the 4-3-3 system that delivered that important victory at the DW Stadium. Despite sitting in fifteenth place and having been getting used to looking over their shoulder a little too often for comfort already this season, Ipswich’s squad contains several high-quality performers. Goalkeeper Bartosz Bia?kowski has to be amongst the best in the league, whilst the experienced Christophe Berra will give former Norwich striker Chris Martin a difficult afternoon. Ipswich might be missing the silky skills of Welsh international Jonny Williams, likely to be sidelined for around three months after having an operation on his injured shoulder, but talented teenager Andre Dozzell – who has already attracted the attention of many a big club – could make his first start of the season.
The Whites will need little reminding of Ipswich’s firepower up front. Freddie Sears, who first hit the headlines as a goalscoring youngster at West Ham, found the net after just 16 seconds at Craven Cottage last season and the evergreen Brett Pitman notched the winner in that game. On-loan Welsh forward Tom Lawrence started on the left of the front three at Wigan and could well keep his place, despite David McGoldrick helping to change the game when he came off the bench. McGoldrick’s goal consigned Fulham to defeat on the opening day of the 2014/15 season when Felix Magath’s youthful side were well beaten – and he remains a potent threat at this level.
Fulham come into this contest buoyed by their performance against in-form Derby County – if not the result they achieved. Scott Malone spoke for many in saying that the Whites have thrown away far too many points in the closing stages of games this season – and the Experimental631 website displayed just how costly those shortcomings have been this week. In their table compiled if matches had finished after 75 minutes, Fulham were comfortably in the play-off places rather than four points outside them. Whilst the Whites enjoyed plenty of possession and rallied impressively after Derby had took the lead, they will need to eliminate the basic defensive mistakes if they have serious ambitions of making the top six.
Jokanovic’s key call this afternoon is how to solve the problem at the heart of the Fulham back four. His side went on a seven-match winless streak the last time Tomas Kalas injured a hamstring and, after the Czech centre back limped off last week, they immediately looked more fallible. Icelandic international Ragnar Sigurdsson was hauled off having presented the first goal to Tom Ince and the choice will be between him, Michael Madl and Tim Ream as to who makes up the centre back pairing. The head coach’s pre-match comments this week also seem to indicate that he will keep faith with goalkeeper David Button, whose winter form dip is causing quite a bit of concern.
Fulham will hope that the energy of Stefan Johansen and creativity of Tom Cairney can help the Whites settle into their passing rhythms swiftly at Portman Road. The return of Martin, who was ineligible for last weekend’s game against his parent club, should offer more of an imposing presence up front – even if Floyd Ayite poached another goal from the forward position against the Rams. Given the impressive amount of chances Jokanovic’s side are creating, it is little surprise that they trail only Newcastle in the Championship’s goalscoring charts – even though there is a sense that, with all their domination of games, the Whites should actually be finding the net more regularly.
MY FULHAM XI (4-1-2-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks, Malone, Madl, Sigurdsson; McDonald; Johansen, Cairney; Ayite, Aluko, Martin. Subs: Button, Sessegnon, Ream, Parker, Piazon, Smith, Humphrys.