Tonight’s west London derby is an intriguing tussle between two sides desperate, not only for bragging rights, but for a route out of the Championship. Ian Holloway’s return to Loftus Road has breathed new life into QPR, who started the season splendidly, and there is a new belief about Rangers – as evidenced by Luke Freeman’s blistering late leveller at Barnsley in midweek. They are playing far more football than many expected ahead of Holloway’s second coming and the manager will ensure that his players won’t lack for motivation this evening. Fulham might have ground out a gutsy win at Nottingham Forest on Tuesday but Slavisa Jokanovic’s side have struggled for consistency and fluency in what has been a disappointing opening to the campaign – something they will badly won to put right in Shepherd’s Bush tonight.
Rangers boast their best home record since December 2015. They are unbeaten in their last six fixtures at Loftus Road, winning four of them, and Holloway seems to have hit upon a formula that has surprised plenty of Championship sides already this term. The 4-3-2-1 system has given Freeman, outstanding over the last three seasons with Bristol City, the freedom to influence games either as or as a meandering number ten, assured of the quality of Josh Scowen, who looks like one of the bargains of the summer having arrived on a free transfer from Barnsley, and the combative Massimo Luongo, operating behind him. Whether it is Conor Washington, Fulham old boy Matt Smith, Idrissa Sylla – scorer of the winner at the Cottage last term – or Jamie Mackie who leads the line, Rangers will pose a real threat going forwards and the Whites have been more than prone to conceding sloppy goals so far this season.
Holloway’s side have real dynamism in the wide areas, as well. Mackie can operate on either flank, whilst Pawel Wszolek, former Blackpool wide man Bright Osayi-Samuel, and the impressive David Wheeler, recruited from Exeter during the last transfer window, all have the ability to both find the net and provide accurate crosses. When you consider that Jake Bidwell, youth product Darnell Furlong and Alex Baptiste all like to venture forward as well, there’s more than enough attacking outlets to demand Fulham’s concentration. Holloway might hand Jordan Cousins a first start of the season after he came through a reserve outing on Monday, whilst Steven Caulker continued his heartwarming return from mental health problems with a composed display at Oakwell.
Cliche dictates that the formbook goes out of the window in on derby night, but there’s little to choose between these two sides six weeks into the new season, in any case. Fulham’s win at the City Ground inched them above their neighbours but, more than ever this season, this is a league where anybody can beat anyone else. Coming away from Loftus Road with all three points this evening will require a defensive solidity and fluency in Fulham’s football that was lacking for much of the first half in Nottingham – and Slavisa Jokanovic will know that he won’t be able to count on QPR being as profligate in front of goal as Mark Warburton’s men were.
The fact that Aboubakar Kamara, who turned in an electric performance on Trentside, has to have his hamstring complaint assessed prior to kick-off poses a selection conundrum for the Serbian head coach. The French forward has scored two in two and hassled and harried experienced centre halves throughout Tuesday’s encounter, but his deployment as a lone striker pushed the peerless Rui Fonte onto the periphery. Too often the Portuguese striker, who showed his predatory instincts with that fine finish at Ipswich last month, was too far from the opposition’s penalty area to hurt Forest – and Fulham can’t afford to have one of their best finishers linking the play in midfield when chances could be at a premium.
Jokanovic’s bold sacrificing of a central midfielder to field both of his big-money forwards did cede the initiative to Forest to begin with on Tuesday, but the hosts were unable to make their possession count. Fulham’s foothold in the contest grew stronger when Ollie Norwood was introduced after half-time – and it would be a real gamble to switch away from the established 4-3-3 for a second game in succession. That would mean a tough decision about who to deploy in the wide areas, especially after Neeskens Kebano and Yohan Mollo came off the bench to excellent effect at the City Ground. Sheyi Ojo’s pace and power could be pivotal during a derby – but has the Liverpool loanee done enough to retain his place for this fixture?
Fulham haven’t gone three games without a win against QPR since May 1983, when a 3-1 win for Terry Venables’ side secured the Second Division title for Rangers. After some pathetic penalty taking and a more than generous backpass from Kevin McDonald last term, that winless streak could be matched tonight in W12. After stumbling at Burton and folding badly against Middlesbrough, Jokanovic will not want to see Tuesday’s step forward followed by two steps back at Loftus Road.
MY FULHAM XI (4-3-3): Button; Fredericks, R. Sessegnon, Kalas, Ream; McDonald, Norwood, Johansen; Ojo, Kebano, Fonte. Subs: Bettinelli, Madl, Odoi, Cisse, Mollo, Graham, Kamara.