It’s been a very good week at Fulham Football Club. The announcement that Slavisa Jokanovic had extended his stay at Craven Cottage for a further two years was a cause for celebration both because, it appeared unlikely at one stage after an underwhelming end to the January transfer window, and as it signalled the Serbian head coach who has masterminded such a swift transformation in Fulham’s fortunes had bought into the club’s new structure, with the owner’s son Tony Khan becoming vice-chairman and head of football operations. There followed awards for captain Tom Cairney, the club’s foundation, a government commendation of the links with supporters and another price freeze on season tickets.
The only thing missing over the past seven days were the three points Fulham could have earned to boost their push for the play-offs at Cardiff City. But considering Neil Warnock has turned the Bluebirds into the division’s form side in 2017, that Cardiff were 2-1 up with twenty minutes to play and had started like a house on fire, few could grumble once Fulham’s fighting spirit delivered a share of the spoils. A slip-up from Sheffield Wednesday means that the top six is still within reach but every fixture is almost a Cup tie – if not a Cup final – now and the visit of two teams from the north west in quick succession will provide a stern test of Jokanovic’s side’s mettle.
Preston are far from the ragged and rather patchy side that Fulham put to the sword at Deepdale back in August. Simon Grayson, who was under some pressure in the early weeks of the season, has drilled and reshaped his side so impressively that North End still harbour realistic play-off aspirations of their own on a fraction of Fulham’s budget. The addition of Irish winger Aiden McGeady looks like a real masterstroke – he scored another magnificent goal in the late comeback against QPR last weekend – and striker Jordan Hugill notched a confidence-restoring strike to put previous penalty misery behind him. Preston are resilient, well-organised and will have an added reason to be ultra-competitive this afternoon, with 3,000 fans travelling to London for the supporters’ annual gentry day.
North End are unbeaten in the new calendar year and have lost just one of their last ten league fixtures. Ben Pearson has recovered from a groin strain to play a full part in training this week and should bolster their energetic midfield, with Daniel Johnson, who scored in this fixture last year, another man to watch. Grayson does have a problem at right back with Tyias Browning, Marnick Vermijl and Alex Baptiste all missing so left-back Greg Cunningham will shift over to the other flank to deputise. The absence of Lucas Piazon, who will probably miss the remainder of the season after breaking his jaw in a clumsy tackle in Cardiff, means Jokanovic will have to shuffle his pack in order to exploit any Preston difficulties, though.
The easiest option would be to allow Floyd Ayite to saunter around from the left flank, utilising both his turn of pace and eye for goal, although Jokanovic might fancy playing teenager Ryan Sessegnon – who has been a regular scorer as well at the tender age of 16 – in front of Scott Malone. Otherwise, the only conundrums the Fulham head coach has to solve are familiar ones. Tim Ream will probably be paired alongside Tomas Kalas at the heart of the defence again – although both got a real working over from Kenneth Zahore last weekend – whilst at the other end of the pitch, Jokanovic will have to decide whether to go with Cyriac or Chris Martin, who wasn’t even on the bench last week, as his starting forward. Both might start from the substitutes bench given the recent scoring form of Neeksens Kebano, who has been revitalised by his national service at the African Cup of Nations.
MY FULHAM XI (4-1-2-3): Button; Fredericks, Sessegnon, Kalas, Ream; McDonald; Cairney, Johansen; Ayite, Kebano, Martin. Subs: Bettinelli, Malone, Madl, Parker, Aluko, Williams, Cyriac.