Fulham head to Villa Park this afternoon targeting a third successive away win that could propel them into the Championship play-off positions for the first time this season. Slavisa Jokanovic’s side will take confidence from the two victories at Nottingham Forest and QPR before the international break as well as the fighting spirit shown to claim a point from 2-0 down against Preston last weekend, but the Serbian head coach is fully aware of the size of the task Fulham will face against the division’s in-form side.
Despite a disappointing defeat to table-topping Wolves on Saturday, Villa are finally making strides in the right direction under Steve Bruce. They are unbeaten in eight home fixtures – and have lost just one of their last fourteen league games at Villa Park – and sit just a point outside the top six themselves. The Villains have collected thirteen points from their last six outings, letting in just three goals, and boast a formidable home record against the Cottagers, having lost just once in their latest fourteen meetings at Villa Park.
Saturday’s setback against their local rivals – where Villa were outplayed by a Wolves side high on confidence – was their first reverse in nine and Bruce seems to have got his side back on track after a dreadful start to the season. The former Hull boss can call on plenty of experience, including veteran centre halves John Terry and Christopher Samba, in a squad that should really be challenging for promotion and has a surfeit of creative options to call upon, include Conor Hourihane, who has contributed five goals already from the centre of midfield, the dangerous Albert Adomah and wily winger Robert Snodgrass.
Villa also possess plenty of power up front too. French forward Jonathan Kodija needs no introduction after his goalscoring exploits in his first taste of the Championship at Bristol City, as well as his acrobatic finish after David Button’s blunder that settled this fixture a year ago, whilst teenager Keinan Davis has been the find of the summer, contributing two goals and four assists since stepping into the first team from Villa’s youth ranks. Bruce has hinted that the 19 year-old could do with a rest, in which case former Brentford striker Scott Hogan – who has scored two and made another goal in his three Championship outings against the Whites – would prove an able deputy.
Such is the quality at Bruce’s disposal that he will be confidence of getting a result even without six established first-teamers. Welsh international Neil Taylor completes the final game of his three-match suspension at left back and, although Australian midfielder Mile Jedinak and former Arsenal playmaker Henri Lansbury have returned to training they remain short of full fitness. Andre Green and Rushian Hepburn-Murphy are both sidelined by hamstring injuries, whilst this game comes too soon for Jack Grealish, the scorer of a sensational equaliser at Craven Cottage last season, who continued his recovery from kidney damage by playing an hour of an Under 23 win over Wolves on Monday night.
Jokanovic, who played in the same Chelsea side as Terry, knows just what to expect from what he termed ‘one of the strongest sides’ in the Championship during his pre-match press conference. He has drummed into his players the need to avoid another catastrophic start like the one Fulham endured against North End as the return of any defensive sloppiness threatens to undermine their own promotion aspirations. His biggest dilemmas will centre around whether Ryan Fredericks, who missed the pulsating draw with Preston due to a foot injury, captain Tom Cairney – whose introduction at half time in that game turned the tide – and Aboubakar Kamara are fit enough to start.
The Fulham head coach could make further changes with the previously pivotal Stefan Johansen, who has fashioned 31 chances for his team-mates this term, seeming a little off the boil of late and Rafa Soares’ return to full fitness putting the Portuguese full-back in line for a first start since joining on loan from Porto. That might allow Ryan Sessegnon to roam forward from a left wing position, although former Villa academy product Jordan Graham and French winger Yohan Mollo, who looked lively off the bench on Saturday, will be eager to make an impression.
Fulham’s last league win at Villa Park was probably the brightest memory in a dismal relegation season three years ago, when Kieron Richardson’s rocket and that late header from Hugo Rodallega gave the Whites belief that they might under escape relegation under Felix Magath. Fond memories are found even further back thanks to a pair of strikes from Brummie boys Simon Morgan and Steve Hayward that knocked then Premier League-leading Villa out of the FA Cup at the third round stage in 1999 and the Whites have won four of their last six in the league against today’s opponents, In order to retain the second best away record in the Championship, Jokanovic’s side will have to marry their fluent football with some serious steel this afternoon.
MY FULHAM XI (4-3-3): Button; Odoi, R. Sessegnon, Kalas, Ream; McDonald, Norwood, Cairney; Ayite, Kebano, Fonte. Subs: Bettinelli, Madl, Soares, Johansen, Graham, Mollo, Kamara.