What greeted Tom Cairney’s stoppage-time intervention against Bolton Wanderers on Saturday wasn’t euphoria but just blessed relief. Fulham wouldn’t have expected to have to stage another late fightback against the league’s bottom side but, as we saw in the way the Whites dug deep against Preston North End earlier this month, there is some real fight in Slavisa Jokanovic’s side. Not that the Serbian was happy, insisting correctly that his team’s display ‘was not good enough’ in comments echoed by Kevin McDonald, whose desperate burst to the byline created Cairney’s equaliser, who described the defending that led to Sammy Ameobi’s shock opener as ‘pathetic’.
Fulham are still some way from the side that surged into the top six with Championship winning form after last Christmas. Both in their rather ponderous style and the points accrued over the first three months of the season, Jokanovic’s men are nowhere near where they would want to be. It is true that the fixture computer handed Fulham possibly the toughest start of any side in the division and that Jokanovic’s plans have been disrupted by injuries to key players, but opponents have worked out how to shut out the fluent football that easily found a way through last year. The ease with which Bolton defended their 1-0 lead until injury time on Saturday only underlined the problem.
In the past month, Jokanovic has twice urged his side to banish their poor home form with a convincing performance – and been left underwhelmed by two draws that were only secured at the very last. Where Craven Cottage was once a feel fortress, Fulham – who have one just one of their last eight league games in SW6 – are now very welcoming hosts, who haven’t kept a home clean sheet since beating Barnsley last January. The visit of Lee Johnson’s Bristol City, who have tasted victory on all of their last three trips, hardly inspires confidence.
Johnson’s men are on a six-game unbeaten run away from home, winning on their last two outings at struggling Sunderland and against Ipswich. City have surprised many by not struggling for goals despite losing the services of Jonathan Kodija and Tammy Abraham in the past two seasons, with Famara Diedhiou having registered eight league strikes before going down with injury in the League Cup romp past Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace. Milan Djuric, who scored the winner at the Stadium of Light, will be pushing for a start alongside Matty Taylor up front – although the Robins can also count on the goals and creativity of Bobby Reid, who scored in the 4-0 win here last September and already has nine goals in 17 appearances this term.
City can also call upon the mercurial wing play of former Nottingham Forest wide man Jamie Patterson, who will pose real problems by drifting off his flank to great effect. On the other wing, there’s the tricky talent of Callum O’Dowda, who made a real impression off the bench at the Cottage last season. The Republic of Ireland international underlined his quality with two assists to secure City’s first win at Sunderland since 1992 on Saturday and O’Dowda’s willingness to take on a full-back and whip in a dangerous cross could really test Ryan Sessegnon’s defensive capabilities this evening.
Jokanovic has a few decisions to take as he looks to enliven a Fulham side who looked flat for long periods as Bolton largely nullified them at the weekend. The game could well be won and lost in central midfield, which is why the home faithful will be praying that Tom Cairney has suffered no ill-effects from his first full ninety minutes since August and can play a leading role from the start tonight. Just as importantly, Stefan Johansen offered a different offensive dimension when he stepped off the bench on Saturday – and when the Norwegian’s on form, he makes such a difference to Fulham’s football. Playing that pair with McDonald operating from slightly deeper still transforms Jokanovic’s side into a different proposition.
It remains to be seen whether Jokanovic will stick to his plan from the last two fixtures of playing Rui Fonte and Aboubakar Kamara in the same side. It would natural to pair the big, hulking presence with Fonte’s more cultured touch, but asking the Portuguese forward to masquerade as a winger has been a recipe for disaster lately – and risks wrecking his impressive start to his Fulham career at Ipswich. Fonte needs games in a familiar position and you can’t help but feel he is best suited marrying his intelligent runs to Cairney’s perceptive passes. The Fulham head coach is just as stubborn as he is a perfectionist – so the team-sheet will tell us all tonight.
MY FULHAM XI (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks, R. Sessegnon, Kalas, Ream; McDonald, Johansen, Cairney; Kebano, Ayite, Fonte. Subs: Button, Odoi, Madl, Cisse, Norwood, Mollo, Kamara.