Slavisa Jokanovic’s search for some impetus to inject into Fulham’s faltering seasons comes up against familiar foes this evening in the shape of Derby County and Gary Rowett. While the Rams visit to SW6 tonight is most notable for the return of Chris Martin to Craven Cottage – a place where he didn’t seem to want to be at times last year – the more worrying factor should be Rowett’s presence in the Derby dugout. The manager’s only defeat by Fulham came on penalties at Burton Albion after the then League Two side took Martin Jol’s second string all the way in an August League Cup tie back in 2013 – and three of Rowett’s league wins over the Whites have been commanding, including the 5-2 thumping by Birmingham that did for Kit Symons.
Rowett knows just how Jokanovic’s side will operate – and was a convincing winner in the duel between the two at the IPro in April, even if David Button’s error-strewn display between the sticks was a contributing factor. Even after a home humbling by Reading a fortnight ago, Rowett has reestablished the Rams as serious contenders for a promotion place after a few seasons when Derby’s disregard of the Financial Fair Play regulations left them with an unbalanced squad and burning through a succession of managers. The former Derby full-back, ridiculously sacked by Birmingham after the sensational salvage job he had done with the Blues, has instilled both organisation and belief into his side – with County having won four of their last five, including excellent away wins at Leeds and Norwich City.
County have coped well with the loss of two of their outstanding performers in recent years, Will Hughes and Tom Ince, to the top flight – recruiting the well-travelled Tom Huddlestone, who began his career at Pride Park, Welsh international Tom Lawrence and Liverpool defender Andre Wisdom to add Premier League quality. The September snaring of Joe Ledley on a free transfer looks like an outstanding acquisition to supplement a squad that brims full of both experience and creative talent. Jokanovic won’t need reminding of the need to shackle both Martin, who bagged a goal off the bench last time out against the Royals, and David Nugent, whose hat-trick punished Fulham back in the spring.
Rowett has an abundance of riches to chose from in the forward options. Alongside the Scottish international and Nugent are the likes of Johnny Russell, who has shaken off a dead leg to be available tonight, Sam Winnall, Andi Weimann, Mason Bennett, Darren Bent and Matej Vydra, who helped fire Watford to promotion when Jokanovic was in charge at Vicarage Road. Derby have usually operated in a fluid 4-2-3-1 this year, with Nugent playing a little deeper than the main striker, and are defensively diligent with Richard Keogh, expected to return after injuring his groin against Reading, alongside Curtis Davies at the heart of the back four.
The visitors, with the industrious Huddlestone and energetic Bradley Johnson – one of the best midfielders in this division – to the fore, will be difficult to break down and dangerous in the final third. They will represent a serious test of whether Fulham’s possession-based football can flourish for a second season at this level or, if, Jokanovic’s brand of pretty passing is too predictable to trouble the best opponents. Derby sit just a point outside the play-offs after the end of the sort of run the Serbian must be hoping his men can embark on.
For once an international break might have arrived at just the right time. Fulham looked lethargic and alarmingly sloppy at Wolves, badly below par even accounting for the home side’s flying start to this campaign. Jokanovic and his coaching staff have spoken about how the gap between domestic fixtures has allowed for some hard work down at Motspur Park and the head coach offered encouraging news about Tom Cairney’s knee, as well as a return to training for Sheyi Ojo, during yesterday’s pre-match press conference. The captain has been a massive miss for much of this campaign, although just the Whites can perform in the absence of their most consistent performer this term – Kevin McDonald, who is suspended tonight, remains to be seen.
The Carnoustie-born midfielder has been head and shoulders above his team-mates in what has ultimately been an underwhelming first quarter of the campaign and Fulham don’t have a ready-made replacement either for his leadership or reading of the game. Ibrahima Cisse looked raw in his only league start against Sheffield Wednesday back in August and it will probably be left to Ollie Norwood, who produced another excellent display for Northern Ireland in Basel in midweek, to fill the anchor role. With worries about Stefan Johansen’s form and fitness, Fulham could sorely miss McDonald’s influence in the engine room tonight.
Jokanovic also has conundrums to solve at either end of the field. Rafa Soares’ two cameos as a substitute in the defeats by Bristol City and Wolves were encouraging enough to give Ryan Sessegnon the licence to roam further forward and the Portuguese full-back’s inclusion might help to shackle the Rams’ own attacking threat out wide. It will be interesting to see whether Jokanovic lines up that way as well as who wins the vote on the opposite flank with Yohan Mollo clearly out of favour and both Floyd Ayite and Neeskens Kebano well below the standards they set at the tail-end of last season.
There’s also a pressing issue of who leads the line. Rui Fonte has struggled for form since the injury that curtailed his excellent display at Portman Road back in August and his acclimatisation to life in the Championship can only have been hindered by being asked to play out wide and as a number 10 rather than as a fully-fledged forward. Squeezing both Fonte and Aboubakar Kamara into the same starting line-up hasn’t worked yet – so Jokanovic has to decide who to start with should he stick to his favoured 4-3-3 formation.
MY FULHAM XI (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks, Soares, Kalas, Ream; Norwood, Johansen, Cairney; Mollo, R. Sessegnon, Fonte. Subs: Button, Madl, Edun, Cisse, Kebano, Ayite, Kamara.