Slavisa Jokanovic has been quite categorical in saying that both the last match of 2016 and the first of the new year will show just where his Fulham side stand in terms of mounting a promotion push. The Whites face two of the form sides, Reading and Brighton, in quick succession and need to pick up points to prevent the top six from pulling away from the chasing pack. Tonight’s trip to the Madjeski Stadium offers the opportunity to lay down a marker – Fulham are five games unbeaten and will be roared on by a strong away support, but third placed Reading are in the middle of a good run of form themselves and will want to take revenge for their 5-0 hammering at Craven Cottage back at the start of the month,
The Royals have been particular difficult to beat on their own patch. Their 3-1 dismantling of Norwich City, who are sinking quite alarmingly away from their previous position as one of the promotion favourites, on Boxing Day represented a fifth straight home win and closed the gap on the automatic promotion places to six points. Jaap Stam’s footballing philosophy, honed in his native Holland and not far removed from the total football that swept the continent in the eighties, means Reading play an attractive and adventurous brand of football, prioritising possession – although Fulham have fared far better against sides who aim to keep the ball this season.
Stam has build a side that can put together a realistic promotion challenge based on a mix of know-how and youthful exuberance. Although Chris Gunter might have put through his own net to start the rout at Craven Cottage, the Welsh international remains one of the division’s most reliable full-back and the ex-Manchester United combination of Paul McShane and Tyler Blackett deliver more defensive solidity. Joey van der Berg, the experienced Dutch holding midfielder, looks an excellent pick up on a Bosman from Heerenveen, whilst the likes of Garath McCleary, who has a record of scoring against Fulham and the former Chelsea midfielder John Swift, who could make a return to the starting line-up tonight, offer plenty of guile to unlock stubborn defences. With a proven Championship goalscorer in Yann Kermogant, the Royals look a formidable proposition.
Although Fulham’s record has improved against Reading recently, you still have to go back to April 2008 for their last win at the Madjeski. The famous day when goals from Brian McBride and Erik Nevland delivered the Whites’ first away league win in fifteen months – and Kasey Keller kept a vital clean sheet – gave Roy Hodgson’s survival hopes a real shot in the arm. Repeating the trick has proven difficult for Fulham since then, a couple of goal-filled draws in the Premier League years, were followed by a dismal defeat under Felix Magath, when the visitors slumped to a 3-0 reverse following Matt Smith’s early red card on his debut, and a 2-2 draw last season.
Fulham are a much more streetwise side on the road this season but maintaining the composure that delivered another clean sheet at Portman Road on Boxing Day will prove difficult against significantly superior opposition. Doing so in the continued absence of commanding centre back Tomas Kalas, who is still sidelined by his hamstring injury, will be a real challenge. Jokanovic will have to decide whether to continue with Tim Ream and Michael Madl, who dovetailed effectively against Ipswich or turn to Ragnar Sigurdsson, who came off the bench to head home his first goal for the club.
The head coach has also hinted at further means of freshening up his side. Ryan Fredericks, who won a penalty against Reading with one of his typical barnstorming runs last season, could return to the side although that might be harsh on Denis Odoi, who proved particularly dangerous in the final third himself against Ipswich. Scott Parker has not started a league game since October – but you suspect Jokanovic will be loathe to break up the midfield triumvirate of Kevin McDonald, Stefan Johansen and Tom Cairney, especially when they are gelling so effectively. Brazilian forward Lucas Piazon, who has largely had to make do with contributions from the bench of late, will be particularly keen to impress against one of his former sides.
The margins of success in the Championship are so small. Reading have won eight of their last ten league fixtures as they have cemented their position as the most likely challengers to Newcastle and Brighton at the top – and will be smarting from that hiding at the Cottage. Stam has insisted that he won’t adapt his approach to prevent teams from pressing them high up the pitch and perhaps a fast, high tempo start will be the best way to establish an advantage in what looks like an intriguing contest.
MY FULHAM XI (4-1-2-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks, Malone, Madl, Sigurdsson; McDonald; Johansen, Cairney; Ayite, Aluko, Martin. Subs: Button, Sessegnon, Ream, Parker, Christensen, Piazon, Smith.