After three draws to begin the season, today’s visit of last season’s other beaten Championship play-off semi-finalists, Sheffield Wednesday, is seen by some Fulham fans as the fixture to kickstart Slavisa Jokanovic’s promotion push. Although the Owls are also yet to record a league win this campaign, that view discounts Wednesday’s obvious quality, the fact that Carlos Carvalhal knows this division inside out and has enjoyed success against Fulham before and fails to factor in the sheer unpredictability of a league that looks even more competitive this term. Then there’s the discouraging fact that Stuart Attwell, whose refereeing of the play-off semi-final first leg against Reading bordered on the comical, has been confirmed as the man in charge.
Carvalhal, whose side have come so close to reaching the promised land of the Premier League in two of the past in seasons, might be under a little of pressure in south Yorkshire following Wednesday’s rather indifferent start to the season, but that regular purveyor of commonsense Alan Biggs wrote this week it is far too soon for Dejphon Chansiri to be contemplating a change. Wednesday certainly haven’t hit the ground running. The Owls were beaten by a Daniel Johnson penalty at Deepdale on the opening day, before being held by Queen’s Park Rangers at Hillsborough and needed a David Jones equaliser to claim a point against Sunderland in midweek. The Portuguese coach also has a few injury concerns to address ahead of this afternoon’s clash at Craven Cottage.
Wednesday will make a late decision on Glenn Loevens’ participation after a back problem saw him miss Wednesday’s draw against the Black Cats. Should the former Brighton centre back fail to make it, new signing Frederico Venancio – who arrived from Vitoria Setubal on a season-long loan this week – could make his debut. The impressive Sam Hutchinson, so assured at the base of the Owls midfield over the past couple of years, and Almen Abdi, who won promotion under Jokanovic at Watford, also face fitness checks on their knee injuries whilst former Manchester United youngster Kieran Lee, such a tricky customer out wide, could return following a hip complaint.
Carvalhal has an abundance of creative and forward talent pushing for inclusion in his eleven. George Boyd, brought in over the summer, has experience of promotion from the Championship with both Hull City and Burnley, for whom he starred in the top flight, whilst Wednesday’s wealth of forwards leave the head coach spoilt for choice. Scottish international Stephen Fletcher was a half-time substitute against Sunderland, whilst ex-Huddersfield, Blackburn and Middlesbrough striker Jordan Rhodes was introduced as Carvalhal pushed for a winner. He began that contest with Gary Hooper, who so comprehensively dominated Ragnar Sigurdsson last November, and Sam Winnall, a scorer against Fulham on the final day of last season and for Barnsley at Oakwell, up front – and might recall the mercurial Fernando Forestieri, who was dropped after a training-ground bust-up with Winnall in the run-up to the QPR game.
Carvalhal knows Fulham’s new signing, the Braga captain Rui Fonte, very well as he hails from the same city that bade so an emotional farewell to the former Arsenal and Crystal Palace forward this week. He was surprised that Fulham were able to snare the striker Braga always insisted was ‘untransferrable’ and after two goals in four games, the 27 year-old would be sharp enough should he be called upon to play a part today. Jokanovic might prefer to stick with the raw Aboubakar Kamara up top, who continued his acclimatisation to English football at Elland Road on Tuesday, or ask Sone Aluko to lead the line.
There will be need to be some reorganisation after luckless Lucas Piazon suffered a broken fibula following a robust challenge from Leeds’ makeshift centre half Connor Shaughnessy. The likable Brazilian, who has suffered two serious injuries in the space of six months on loan from the other side of the Fulham Road, has already started focusing on the long road back to full fitness and his place in the side could be taken by Liverpool winger Sheyi Ojo. The England Under 20 international, who won the World Cup with Paul Simpson’s side in Korea this summer, picked Craven Cottage for another Championship loan spell because of the possibility of regular playing time and would be a natural replacement, providing pace and trickery down the flank.
Fulham also have Tom Cairney back in training after he missed the meeting with his boyhood side to rest up a troublesome knee problem. Whether the peerless playmaker will be risked from the start so early in a gruelling season remains to be seen, but the temptation to reprise Fulham’s three musketeers of Kevin McDonald, Stefan Johansen and the skipper must be great. Jokanovic does have Tomas Kalas available again after his sending off at Reading, although Denis Odoi might consider himself unfortunate to be dropping back to the bench after filling in at centre back so capably in Fulham’s last two fixtures.
Sheffield Wednesday at home certainly stirs some memories. It has seen memorable strikes from the now departed Scott Malone, who secured a point in stoppage time last November, and Lasse Vigen Christensen, whose superb solo run in the rain in front of the Hammersmith End will live long in the memory, right the way through to Sean Davis so famously clinching the Division One title in injury-time with a piledriver some sixteen years ago. Today’s contest is likely to be just as tight – and Fulham will have to be far more clinical that they were against either Leeds or Norwich to claim the points.
MY FULHAM XI (4-3-3): Button; Fredericks, R. Sessegnon, Kalas, Ream; McDonald, Johansen, Cairney; Aluko, Ojo, Kamara. Subs: Rodak, Odoi, Djalo, Cisse, Norwood, Kebano, Fonte.