The message coming out of the Fulham camp this week has been consistent. Slavisa Jokanovic, who was bitterly disappointed with the manner of the Whites’ defeat at Aston Villa last weekend, Stefan Johansen and Ryan Sessegnon have all spoken about how performances at Craven Cottage so far this season have fallen well short of the standard required – hammering home the point that, if the Cottagers have genuine ambitions to mount another promotion push, they will need to start picking up more points at home.
On the face of it, the visit of Bolton Wanderers looks like an ideal opportunity to put things right. Phil Parkinson’s side are marooned at the bottom of the Championship after finding life tough following their promotion from League One last season and haven’t won a league game at Craven Cottage since November 1992. That 25 year hoodoo has included eleven defeats in fifteen visits and Wanderers have failed to score more than a single goal in any of those games. With Parkinson’s men having amassed only six points from their first thirteen games to sit below Sunderland and Burton Albion at the foot of the table and the club still afflicted by off-the-field uncertainty, you might be forgiven for considering this the definition of a home banker.
But Bolton are in the midst of something of a resurgence. They battled their way to a fine victory over Sheffield Wednesday a fortnight ago and followed that by having the better of a 1-1 draw with Queens Park Rangers – and the visitors will be fired up by the likes of David Wheater, who has painful memories of his last trip to Fulham. Parkinson’s side, which also includes former Fulham trainee Darren Pratley and Newcastle loanee Adam Armstrong, will be determined to deliver further proof that they are more than capable of competing at this level as they search for their first away win of the season.
Parkinson could welcome back winger Will Buckley, who has yet something of an injury-ravaged start to his Bolton career after signing from Sunderland in June, to the starting line-up after the former Brighton wide man recovered from a hamstring injury that has kept him on the sidelines since the start of September. Buckley could return to bolster a midfielder that should see the combative Karl Henry continue his impressive partnership with Pratley, who scored last weekend against QPR, and Wanders certainly won’t want for commitment.
Jokanovic told yesterday’s press conference that he’s prepared Fulham thoroughly for the challenge posed by Bolton and won’t be taking them lightly. The Serbian head coach must be tempted to shake things up after his side folded rather meekly in the second half at Villa Park and he’d have plenty of options with only long-term absentees Lucas Piazon and Sheyi Ojo ruled out of action. Whether Tom Cairney is fit enough to start after getting another half an hour under his belt last weekend remains to be seen, but the likes of Neeskens Kebano and Yohan Mollo will be desperate for a start after some below-par wing play in the Midlands on Saturday. Jokanovic would also have the option of pushing Sessegnon – who has spoken of his desire to seal a unique family double this afternoon – further forward and giving a Fulham debut to the on-loan Rafa Soares at left back.
It will be interesting to see what he decides to do up front. Jokanovic insisted yesterday that Rui Fonte has the ability to play in a number of forward positions, but the Portuguese forward was frankly wasted in a wide role at Villa. Whilst Aboubakar Kamara’s formidable physical presence can pose problems for English defences, playing Fonte from the wing sacrifices both his finishing ability and those intelligent runs that stretch centre backs – and his acclimatisation to the Championship would run far smoother were he deployed in the same position from where he looked devastating against Ipswich at Portman Road back in August.
Fulham badly need to pass two tests this afternoon. Jokanovic’s side must begin to present more of a threat to teams who sit deep and defend in numbers against their patient passing football and pick up points at home. Establishing Craven Cottage as a less generous place for opponents to visit is vital if the Whites still hold hopes of making the top six (or better) in the Championship this season – and they will need to be more clinical against the Championship’s strugglers to make that happen.
MY FULHAM XI (4-3-3): Button; Fredericks, Soares, Kalas, Ream; McDonald, Johansen, Cairney; Kebano, R. Sessegnon, Fonte. Subs: Bettinelli, Madl, Cisse, Norwood, Ayite, Mollo, Kamara.