Fulham finally return to domestic action this afternoon trying to repeat what they managed at Ipswich Town before the international break – namely, beating one of the division’s form sides, who have a 100% record. Neil Warnock’s August could hardly have gone better and the Cardiff City manager, a wily operator at this level, was rewarded with the Championship Manager of the Month award yesterday. The Bluebirds head to Craven Cottage in good heart, having begun the campaign in blistering fashion, and the Welsh side will be roared on by more than 3,100 raucous away supporters.
Warnock’s transformation of what looked a largely average side into early-season pacesetters has largely centred around the construction of a front three that possesses pace, power and trickery and terrifies Championship defences. It was no surprise that Premier League sides were sniffing around Kenneth Zohore in the dying embers of the transfer window. The imposing Danish striker has emerged as one of the division’s most potent threats since initially joining Cardiff on loan last January and brutally overpowered Fulham’s defence scoring twice at the Cardiff City Stadium in February. Don’t be fooled by the fact that he’s only scored one in five appearances so far this term – Zohore’s added assists to his game and, in the modern market, the idea that Cardiff rebuffed Everton’s advances to hold out for £30m for his services suddenly doesn’t appear all that fanciful.
Junior Hoilett, so baffingly inconsistent for QPR after bursting onto the scene with great effect for Blackburn back in 2009, has also been a key performer for Warnock in the early weeks of the season. He scored one and made John Terry look totally foolish against Aston Villa before popping up with another goal as Cardiff came from behind to beat his old club in their most recent outing. The real star has been Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, who has taken to Championship football as if he’s been here all his life rather than just made the step up on a free transfer from Rochdale. The 25 year-old former Wolves trainee has scored five times in his first seven appearances for the Welsh side, including a brilliant brace against Villa – underlining the fact that there still several bargains to be found in the Football League pyramid.
Beyond those three, Warnock’s side still possess all the qualities one would expect. They will be physical and robust, with Sean Morrison and Sol Bamba at the heart of the defence, but there’s plenty of quality on the ball as well. Joe Ralls, a scorer in previous meetings with Fulham, and the ever energetic Aron Gunarsson will run the midfield, whilst Warnock still has the likes of Lee Tomlin and Omar Bogle, signed for Wigan late in the window, to integrate into his best side. Warnock will be targeting a first ever league win at Craven Cottage whilst Neil Etheridge, whose only senior appearance in four years at Fulham came on that infamous night Martin Jol’s side were dumped out of the Europa League by Odense, may want to prove a point as well.
Slavisa Jokanovic’s bid to build on a very impressive away display at Portman Road might well have been derailed by a raft of injury concerns. Tom Cairney took an injection in his knee to return for that fixture and was withdrawn from the Scotland squad that breathed new life into their World Cup hopes with two vital wins in order to manage his recover, but the Fulham skipper will miss this afternoon’s clash as he hasn’t made enough progress to merit a place amongst the eighteen. Rui Fonte, who notched his first goal against Town, is also missing whilst two of the wingers out on international duty, Sheyi Ojo and Neeskens Kebano, returned with knocks serious enough leave them on the sidelines this weekend.
The Serbian therefore has a fair few selection headaches as he tries to plot a way through the league leaders. Aboubakar Kamara could lead the line like he did at Leeds, although Floyd Ayite may be fit to return and could reprise the false nine role he filled so successfully during the second half of last season, whilst Fulham now a surfeit of wide players to deputise for Kebano. New arrivals Jordan Graham and Yohan Mollo will be pushing for a place in the side, although starting either – who have had just four Motspur Park training sessions with their new team-mates – could represent a significant gamble. At least Oliver Norwood, in fine form for Northern Ireland during the international interlude, will be chomping at the bit to audition as Cairney’s understudy.
The back five shouldn’t see too much change. David Button, who has kept goal splendidly since those pre-season wobbles and an untimely hamstring injury struck down Marcus Bettinelli, will try and kept Fulham’s first clean sheet against Cardiff since 1989 – a run which spans some nineteen games – whilst Tim Ream should have shaken off the jet lag after featuring in a couple of United States World Cup qualifiers to partner Tomas Kalas once again. Registering the first Craven Cottage league win of the season would send out a message to the rest of the division, although you would doubt too many are paying a great deal of attention to the early league table, especially since none of the last six Championship leaders at the end of August have gone on to win promotion.
MY FULHAM XI (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks, R. Sessegnon, Kalas, Ream; McDonald, Norwood, Johansen; Ayite, Mollo, Kamara. Subs: Button, Odoi, Madl, S. Sessegnon, Cisse, Edun, Graham.