Tomorrow afternoon Fulham will travel to Cardiff in their fifth straight Boxing Day away fixture. Thanks to Chelsea’s commitments at home against Brighton, the Fulham faithful will make the journey to south Wales in search of a result that could lift them closer to the coveted play-off places.
Fulham’s Boxing Day opponents have enjoyed a strong start to the season, currently sitting 15 points and nine places ahead of the Cottagers. The Bluebirds also have established a fortress at the Cardiff City Stadium; they are yet to lose a home match all season.
Led by experienced Championship manager Neil Warnock, Cardiff’s defence is the second best in the division. The backline, marshalled by former Fulham goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, has conceded just 18 goals in 23 matches. In addition, their attack is laden with pace, featuring the likes of Kenneth Zohore, Nathan Mendez-Laing, and top-scorer Junior Hoilett.
Yet Fulham can take heart from Cardiff’s surprising slip-up against Bolton at the weekend. Cardiff were frustrated by Bolton’s physical style of play and conceded two goals in the closing 15 minutes for their fourth league defeat of the year.
Saturday’s 2-1 victory over Barnsley will give the Whites confidence heading into this difficult assignment, and although recent performances may not have set the world on fire, Fulham have nevertheless won four out of their last six. Form like this carried Slavisa Jokanovic’s side into to the play-offs last season, and massive away performances are needed for the Whites to replicate that sensational second-half surge.
Jokanovic seemed to have found an effective front three in the weekend win over the Tykes, with Sheyi Ojo, Aboubakar Kamara and Floyd Ayite providing both goals and a constant threat all match. However, many supporters will be clamoring for teenage sensation Ryan Sessegnon to receive the nod at left wing, especially considering his thrilling late November performance.
The last time the Cottagers played the league’s second-best team away, Sessegnon truly wrote his name into the headlines with a remarkable hat trick against Sheffield United. Sessegnon tore the previously unstoppable Blades apart, scoring three superb goals in a thrilling a 5-4 win. Surely Slavisa will replicate that winning formula and play the young talent in his most-favoured position?
And with Neeskens Kebano and Lucas Piazon back in contention, Jokanovic will have even more attacking options to choose from on Tuesday.
Six points and five places off the play-offs, Fulham can ill afford to drop many more points at this stage of the season. Last Boxing Day brought a comprehensive 2-0 away win over Ipswich, yet both goalscorers that day (Chris Martin and Ragnar Sigurdsson) are no longer with the club. That result left the Whites just one point off sixth position, revealing the gap in performance between 2016/17 and this season.
If Fulham can unsettle the Bluebirds with a strong midfield showing from Stefan Johansen, Kevin McDonald, and Tom Cairney, while punishing Cardiff with the incisiveness of their counter attacks, the festive fixture might just mark a vital three points come May.
MY FULHAM XI (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Odoi, Kalas, Ream, Fredericks; McDonald, Johansen, Cairney; Sessegnon, Kamara, Ojo