The size of Fulham’s task in the steel city tonight is illustrated by the starkest of statistics. The Whites haven’t triumphed at Bramall Lane since Leroy Rosenior’s winner secured the narrowest of wins in April 1984 and have managed just two goals in their last seven visits to S2. Factor in the sensational job that Chris Wilder has done to take last season’s League One champions to within two points of Wolves at the top of the Championship and there will be very few people backing Slavisa Jokanovic’s side to end their six game winning streak this evening.
The Blades have surprised all bar themselves by picking up from where they left off after cantering to the League One title last term. Wilder, a boyhood United fan, has reenergised one of England’s sleeping giants, with a brand of passion and pragmatism that has centred around giving the club’s young stars the freedom to express themselves in an attacking, high-tempo game. Pre-season fears about the potency of their attack at this level have proven remarkably unfounded, with Leon Clarke finding the net nine times in thirteen league stats and the evergreen Billy Sharp adding eight goals already.
There’s a buoyancy about the Blades that can’t just be explained by the fact that long suffering United fans are enjoying some time at the right end of the table. Wilder spoke instructively earlier this week about the club having restored a very genuine bond between his squad and the supporters as he called on the home fans to create the kind of atmosphere that has already helped the Blades to record some notable wins this term. The confidence is infectious and could be seen in the exceptional displays from Paul Coutts, who will miss the rest of the season after a horrific leg break at Burton last weekend, creative midfielder Mark Duffy – who famously unlocked the Owls defence with ease in the recent Sheffiel derby – and precocious youngster David Brooks.
Wilder’s insistence on energy and a high pressing game will put the visitors under pressure from the first whistle. The Blades might be without the likes of Ched Evans and Kieron Freeman but will probably be able to call upon the returning George Baldock, who has been sidelined with a hamstring complaint, and the mercurial John Fleck. The hosts have been careful not to underestimate their underperforming visitors but have their sights set on overhauling Wolves to reach the Championship summit. Fulham might have shown the merest hint of some green shoots of recovery against Derby on Saturday, but just how long lasting that encouraging display proves to be will be severely tested this evening.
Jokanovic is hopeful that will be able to include Stefan Johansen, who missed the weekend encounter through illness, as well as Neeskens Kebano after the winger reported back from international duty with a hip problem. Sheyi Ojo could be in contention for a return to action after recovering quicker than expected from the injury that saw him leave the west London derby against QPR earlier than had been planned – although the Liverpool loanee’s significant lack of match shaprness might count against his claims for an immediate recall.
Fulham will be boosted by the return to the starting line-up of former Sheffield United schemer Kevin McDonald, who makes such a difference to the Whites midfielder. I wrote a while ago about how pivotal that central axis of McDonald-Johansen-Cairney could prove to be in the club’s season – and the inability to play those same three players together has acutely affected Fulham’s rather paltry points total. The head coach still also has to take a decision about which of his strikers is his main front man – with Rui Fonte looked rather bewildered at times on Saturday, the possibility of starting with Aboubakar Kamara seems strong.
Jokanovic has shown a willingness to offer young talent their head in the first team since his appointment to succeed Kit Symons in December 2016 and plenty of academy graduates have followed in Ryan Sessegnon’s explosive footsteps. The latest two, Tayo Edun and Luca de la Torre, acquitted themselves convincingly against the Rams at Craven Cottage on Saturday and another huge talent, Matt O’Riley, was rewarded with his first professional contract. With the likes of Steven Sessegnon and Estonian international Mattias Kait making the bench, there is evidently a much clearer pathway into the first team than before – and plenty of burgeoning talents are bidding to take advantage.
MY FULHAM XI (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks, Soares, Kalas, Ream; McDonald, Johansen, Cairney; Kebano, R. Sessegnon, Fonte. Subs: Button, Odoi, Djalo, Edun, Norwood, Ayite, Kamara.