After the frustrating concession of another lead late on against Cardiff City on Saturday, Fulham have an almost immediate opportunity to put matters right when Hull City visit Craven Cottage this evening. For a perfectionist like Slavisa Jokanovic, his side’s emergence as the Championship’s early draw specialists will really rankle, especially when you factor in the sloppy defending that seems to have snuck back into Fulham’s game. He will certainly want to arrest a run of twelve league games without a clean sheet at Craven Cottage – the worst period of defensive generosity since Ray Lewington, now installed as Roy Hodgson’s number two at Selhurst Park, was at the helm in February 1989.
There is a school of thought that picking up a point against the league leaders, who previously boasted a 100% record, with four key players missing at the weekend shouldn’t be sniffed at. Given that Tom Cairney, Sheyi Ojo, Neeskens Kebano and Rui Fonte can between them summon up a significant amount of creativity, the performance against Cardiff was far more complete than many might have expected after consulting the teamsheet. But Jokanovic would give such a view short shrift when assessing just how close the Bluebirds came to tasting defeat – and the fact that his side once again failed to kill off a game they had under their control.
The Serbian head coach offered an interesting aside during Saturday’s post-match press conference, claiming that it would be fruitless to attempt comparisons between the team that charged into the Championship play-offs with such relentless at the tail end of last season and the one he is currently trying to mould. Fulham were certainly far luckier with injuries throughout the whole of the last campaign than they have been this term and, as their first six fixtures have pitted them against sides who are all considered to be among the contenders for the promotion places, any doom and gloom seems somewhat misplaced. There are still 120 points to play for – and Fulham’s new signings have barely hit the ground yet.
Just for morale purposes, three points would be very welcome this evening. Leonid Slutsky won’t be arriving in a munificent mood, however, after Hull’s horrid capitulation at Derby on Friday night. The Russian has endured a difficult introduction on Humberside with his side currently sitting in fifteenth in the early table and he certainly didn’t need his defence to malfunction after Seb Larsson had ballooned a penalty high over the bar at Pride Park. Slutsky watched Saturday’s draw with Cardiff from the Riverside – believing Fulham to be ‘the best team in the Championship last season’ – and has demanded a reaction from his own players, calling this contest ‘a test of character’.
He is still sending out a makeshift side with the likes of Abel Hernandez, Kevin Stewart, Will Keane, Moses Odubajo and Ryan Mason all long-term absentees and Czech defender Ondrej Mazuch as well as midfielder Evandro not yet ready to feature at Craven Cottage this evening. Hull will have Fraizer Campbell, who has scored twice at Fulham previously in his career, available after a groin injury saw him miss the last three weeks of action and can count on in form-forward Jarrod Bowen, who has scored four times already this term, as a source of goals.
Last year’s FA Cup tie, where Marcus Bettinelli saved two spot-kicks in a minute, has little relevance given that both squads have changed so much in the intervening period. Slutsky still has plenty of Premier League pedigree to pick from, including Scottish international Allan McGregor in goal, the leadership qualities of Michael Dawson at centre back, the creativity of Kamil Grosicki, who Hull managed to hold onto in August, alongside Larsson in midfield as well as summer signings like Jackson Irvine, who scored here for Burton Albion last term, and former Arsenal midfield Jon Toral. It won’t be an easy ride for the hosts.
Jokanovic’s team selection might not be finalised until very late this evening. Cairney, who made his name as an energetic young midfielder at Hull, is still struggling to shake off his meniscus tear and won’t be risked, whilst Ojo’s sore ankle will also be rested ahead of the trip to the Pirelli Stadium on Saturday. Fulham could welcome back Rui Fonte, whose intelligent runs and predatory instincts were missing against Cardiff, as well as Kebano, who delivered a virtuoso performance at Portman Road prior to what was – for him – an immensely frustrating international break.
Cairney’s absence will hand Kevin McDonald another opportunity to captain the side – and the Scot’s leadership qualities will be sorely needed should Fulham want to lay down a marker to the rest of the division. They were far too passive having taken the lead against Neil Warnock’s charges at the weekend and any such hesitation will be pounced upon by Slutsky’s hungry Tigers tonight. Jokanovic will demand a return to the high-tempo, slick passing football that prised open many a resolute rearguard last term – although the visitors will prove a tough nut to crack.
MY FULHAM XI (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks, R. Sessegnon, Kalas, Ream; McDonald, Norwood, Johansen; Ayite, Kebano, Fonte. Subs: Button, Madl, Odoi, Cisse, Mollo, Graham, Kamara.