After Fulham’s foggy Friday, there are far more questions than answers. Chris Martin’s desire to return to Derby County, helpfully briefed to the Sun in advance of arguably the club’s most important fixture of the season, threw Slavisa Jokanovic’s preparations for a tough end to the festive programme into complete disarray and left the head coach doing passionate media interviews at a time when he should have been concentrating on proving Fulham’s mettle against their promotion rivals. The fog at the Madjeski Stadium – which I’ve written about here – meant that we learnt little from the 45 minutes of play that were permitted against Reading and this afternoon’s visiting of high-flying Brighton & Hove Albion represents a crucial yardstick against which to measure Fulham’s progress.
If Jokanovic cut a frustrated figure after the early abandonment in Berkshire on Friday, the Serbian head coach had every reason not to be feeling the compliments of the season. He had staked a considerable amount on bringing in Martin from Derby back in August – especially when you consider that he was far from Fulham’s first choice – and weathered a tough opening to the Scottish international’s Craven Cottage career. Just as Martin, who incidentally has been something of a thorn in Brighton’s side over recent seasons, was beginning to really flourish as the focal point of Jokanovic’s system, he decides to do a Jimmy Bullard/Clint Dempsey and down tools. It would be a said to end what appeared to have the signs of a fruitful relationship, but Martin’s treachery shouldn’t be rewarded in the short term. The impasse surrounding his future also means Jokanovic will probably have to deploy Lucas Piazon as a lone forward in what might yet be the last game of his loan spell from Chelsea – or opt to bring in Matt Smith from the cold unless he wants to hand Stevie Humphrys the toughest of full senior debuts.
The measure of the test Brighton pose at Craven Cottage can be seen from their outstanding record towards the top of the Championship with Chris Hughton keen to set aside the disappointment of folding from an imposing position last season. The Seagulls have lost just one of their last eighteen games away from the AMEX, winning eleven and also have an excellent recent record against Fulham. Brighton, brim full of confidence after a run that has put in a nip and tuck chase with Newcastle at the division’s summit, have won each of their last four fixtures against the Whites, including last month’s tussle on the south coast – where Jokanovic’s side were unable to build on a fine fast half display and received a timely reminder of the Championship’s fine margins.
Hughton’s side process one of the country’s in-form striking partnerships in Sam Baldock, whose blistering strike broke QPR’s resistence last weekend, and the evergreen Glenn Murphy and are well-drilled and functional with the silky skills of Anthony Knockaert matched by the diligence of Dale Stephens in central midfield. Shane Duffy and former Fulham target Lewis Dunk have gelled impressively as a central defensive partnership and with David Stockdale displaying just why Felix Magath was mad to ship him out as soon as Fulham plummeted into the Championship back in 2014, you know Fulham will find it difficult to carve out an advantage. Brighton have kept a clean sheet in five of their last eight away day outings.
I wrote in my consideration of the Martin saga that the unfortunate scenario might actually unite everybody at a crucial time at Craven Cottage. Jokanovic, who has been the subject of interest from Malaga this week, is clearly seeking substantial backing from the board during the January transfer window – and it would be remarkably remiss of Shahid Khan not to reward the substantial improvement since the summer with significant investment. The supporters could hardly be more united in their support of the Serbian, who is quickly becoming a cult hero down by the Thames, and it would be an unusual sensation to have everybody pulling in the same direction all of a sudden.
On the pitch, Fulham have looked in great nick over the last few weeks. Brighton, backed by around 4,000 travelling fans, will represent the sternest examination of their promotion credentials – but the way the Whites have played against the other promotion contenders will mean they won’t be fearing their opponents this afternoon. The secret to success is probably playing the patient, possession football that has characterised Jokanovic’s transformation of this side – but at a quick tempo designed to unsettle a side that likes to work to a familiar rhythm. Few sides had been able to live with Fulham’s combination of precise passing and uninhibited pace – and that should be the template to try and unlock Hughton’s team.
MY FULHAM XI (4-1-2-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks, Malone, Madl, Sigurdsson; McDonald; Johansen, Cairney; Aluko, Ayite, Piazon. Subs: Button, Sessegnon, Ream, Parker, Christensen, Smith, Humphrys.