Slavisa Jokanovic was absolutely right to insist on Thursday that Fulham’s focus can’t be on revenge at the Madjeski Stadium this afternoon. However much the play-off semi-final defeat still irks (and I still catch myself reliving that frenzied last minute when it looked for an instant like Marcus Bettinelli might head home a famous equaliser), seeking absolution or justice in Berkshire today won’t end well. This is just another opportunity to take points off a promotion rival – and Fulham need to be far more ruthless than they were against Norwich last weekend.
Fans are far more emotionally invested in this afternoon that even the streetwise Serbian, whose meticulous professionalism demands that he focus solely on trying to outwit Jaap Stam, who managed to stop Fulham’s flowing football from flourishing last May. But even supporters still irked by the classness Reading pitch invasion that soon turned into outright goading of the away end should take their lead from the ten Fulham fans who have walked the forty miles from Craven Cottage to the Madjeski overnight to raise money for the men’s mental health support group, the Campaign Against Living Miserably. The lads are due to finish their phenomenal effort shortly – and every donation counts. The fact that their efforts have been fully embraced by both football clubs should go some way to ensuring that atmosphere inside the ground is a little less poisonous this afternoon.
Jokanovic’s side looked very good in patches on the opening weekend but weren’t clinical enough to kill off the Canaries. The second string, supplemented by a number of promising debutantes, eventually saw off plucky Wycombe on Tuesday but there is still a question mark over whether the head coach’s possession-based philosophy can grind out the results necessary to leave Fulham at the Championship summit after a gruelling 46-game season. The best way to eliminate any doubt would be to record impressive performances early in the campaign against sides like Reading, Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday, who are likely to feature heavily in the battle for promotion.
Fulham’s side should pick itself this afternoon, especially with Kevin McDonald now ready to play a part after recovering from a calf strain. Ibrahima Cisse bestrode the Adams Park pitch like a colossus at teams in midweek – and now has a song befitting a cult hero – but he will probably have to wait for another chance to impose himself on English football. Tom Cairney has shaken off a series of knocks following some heavy Norwich challenges last weekend and the peerless playmaker should expect more sides to follow the Reading example and seek to kick out of contests. The restoration of the McDonald-Johansen-Cairney axis that so transformed Fulham’s prospects last term is key to the team’s chances this year as well.
Lucas Piazon might consider himself unlucky to have make do with a spot on the pitch after scoring a sensational opener against the Chairboys, but the only debate is likely to be over whether to field Aboubakar Kamara, who showed some more promising signs over the course of his first 90 minutes in a Fulham shirt in the League Cup, from the start. The temptation to allow a genuine striker to lead the line – and try and impose himself on a Royals’ defence that has started the season in somewhat shaky fashion is obvious, but Jokanovic hinted in his press conference that he will remain an option to be introduced from the bench for now.
The laughable short-termism that afflicts modern football management means that Stam, whose achievements in taking Reading to the cusp of promotion last season amongst boadroom uncertainty should not be discounted, is under pressure following an underwhelming summer and a first day defeat to QPR. The Dutchman also has to contend with a number of absences including defender Omar Richards, midfielders Joey van der Berg and Roy Beerens as well as Garath McCleary and Yann Kermogant. Centre backs Paul McShane, sent off at Craven Cottage last season after a disgraceful lunge at McDonald, and Tiago Illori are available again and Stam is hopeful that superb wing-back Jordan Obita and forward Jon Bodvarsson will pass fitness tests.
Whatever side Stam is able to put out this will be another serious test of Fulham’s promotion credentials. Whilst expectation might have risen on the back of last season’s sensational surge into the top six, repeating the feat is far easier said than done – as Jokanovic has been alluding to lately.
MY FULHAM XI (4-3-3): Button; Fredericks, R. Sessegnon, Kalas, Ream; McDonald, Johansen, Cairney; Ayite, Aluko, Kamara. Subs: Rodak, Odoi, Madl, Cisse, Norwood, Piazon, Kebano.