The cliche at this point in the season is to describe every game remaining in terms akin to a Cup final. As much as your correspondent abhors employing hackneyed phraseology, it comes pretty close to summarising the situation Fulham find themselves in as a mad Championship campaign reaches the final furlong. Slavisa Jokanovic has been vocal in the build up to Easter Monday’s potentially pivotal clash with Aston Villa about what the Whites need to cut out – but, in these last moments of the season, it is as much about dealing with the pressure as anything else.
That is why Friday’s victory over Norwich City at Carrow Road was massive. Fulham teams of old would have crumbled once Chris Martin was given his marching orders for being overly aggressive in a tussle with the very savvy Mitchell Dijks. Tom Cairney revealed yesterday afternoon that the head coach told his players to calm down in the immediate aftermath of the red card, trust in their footballing ability, and keep faith with the plan that had carried them so far. To outplay opponents with a numerical advantage so comprehensively that 3-1 felt like a generous scoreline by the final whistle was some achievement.
The frustration of course came with the news that Fernando Forestieri’s late winner had ensured Sheffield Wednesday could cling onto their top six place. Any disappointment would have been helped by Leeds’ last-gasp equaliser at Newcastle or the sight of a laughable penalty award carrying Huddersfield past Preston. A day later and today’s opponents couldn’t deliver a timely failure and halt the Reading juggernaught, but the very fact that there are now three sides looking nervously over their shoulder in Fulham’s direction shows just how impressive a job Jokanovic has done since Christmas to make the play-offs a realistic proposition.
The Serbian head coach has got the big calls right over the past few weeks. In my eyes, Marcus Bettinelli has been waiting far too long to get an opportunity to show how he has built on his solid early form when he was promoted into the first team after Fulham’s relegation from the top flight. The academy graduate has certainly seized upon his chance to usurp David Button, whose dreadful errors against Derby made a compelling case for Bettinelli’s return. In front of him, Tim Ream produced possibility his finest display in a Fulham shirt against the Canaries on return – with countless commanding headers and a reassuring presence on the ball.
Jokanovic’s only big conundrum is who to field up front in Martin’s absence this afternoon. The conventional striking option would be Cyriac, who probably deserves a start just for the impressive way that he thumped home that volley against Blackburn last month. But Jokanovic loves to spring a surprise. Floyd Ayite, so red-hot in front of goal of late, could be deployed at the top of the Fulham attack – just as he was so effectively following Martin’s sending off at Carrow Road. Lucas Piazon, who started his career as a genuine striker, might come into the equation if Jokanovic wanted someone with a physical stature to occupy Villa’s defenders and Neeskens Kebano’s guile offers an entirely different option.
Aston Villa have won on just one of their last ten visits to Craven Cottage – and have failed to find the net in their last three trips. If Steve Bruce’s side are to improve on that dire recent record they will need to get to grips with Tom Cairney, who was outstanding as he notched up his tenth goal to go with his ten assists at Norwich, and the visitors will certainly be motivated to put in a far better performance that in the defeat to Reading on Saturday, which contained a number of dreadful defensive errors. Bruce, who is already building for a serious promotion push next season, won’t tolerate a repeat – even if he has to ring the changes.
The Villains might be without Welsh full-back Neil Taylor, who has suffered a groin strain and is likely to be replaced by Jordan Amauvi but Bruce’s side have some significant firepower. Jonathan Kodija, who profited from another Button howler at Villa Park earlier this season, should shrug off the knock he received against Reading to partner the former Brentford striker Scott Hogan in attack. That nippy pairing should present a different set of tests for Ream and Tomas Kalas tomorrow. Bruce’s line-up could be much changed from the one that slumped to defeat against the Royals, although the fact that all three of a central midfield combination comprising of Mile Jedinak, Conor Hourihane and Henri Lansbury, who has scored a brace on each of his last two visits to the Cottage, might be missing only serves to highlight the strength in depth that the visitors possess already.
Fulham will need to reprise the grit that Ream felt they had been missing in recent weeks before the trip to Norwich and they made need to be patient against a Villa side that will be dogged and spirited, as well as looking to play some beautiful football of their own. As Jokanovic knows, it certainly won’t be easy.
MY FULHAM (4-1-2-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks, Malone, Kalas, Ream; McDonald; Johansen, Cairney; Ayite, Aluko, Cyriac. Subs (not used): Button, Sigurdsson, Sessegnon, Petsos, Parker, Piazon, Kebano.