On a bitterly cold afternoon in the north east, we’ll learn an awful lot about whether Slavisa Jokanovic’s side have the stomach for a second successive dart at the play-offs. Fulham might have won three of their last four games and head to Wearside in reasonably confident mood, but the spectre of how the Whites collapsed from a winning position at Griffin Park still looms. That defeat is symbolic of a season where Jokanovic’s side have let precious points slip away through sloppiness – leaving them little margin for ever in the second half of the season if they are to make an assault on the top six, just like last year.
On paper, it looks like an away banker. Fulham are far happier on their travels at Craven Cottage these days – the reverse of the strong home from that sustained thirteen years in the top flight – and have gradually shown signs of clicking into gear after a laboured start to the campaign. Sunderland have a notoriously woeful home record of their own – the Black Cats haven’t won a game at the Stadium of Light in the calendar year of 2017 – and today’s fixture represents their last chance. We all know what happened the last time Sunderland were approaching a historic winless stretch on their own turf. Brian McBride scored in freezing conditions to give Fulham lead, but the game was contentiously abandoned before half time as snow settled on the surface. Sunderland won the rescheduled fixture 2-1 – but the man in the visiting dugout was far from impressed.
That man was Chris Coleman, who has had a month on Wearside since leaving the Welsh national side to try and revitalise one of English football’s biggest sleeping giants. He inherited a dispirited squad, who were bottom of the Championship, and under Simon Grayson, looked every inch a side set for successive relegations have fallen out of the top flight apologetically last term. Indeed, Sunderland’s start to life back in the second tier is very reminiscent of how Fulham endured the early months of Championship. Coleman has an immediate impact – with a win over Burton Albion providing much needed confidence – and a battling draw at league leaders Wolves, which saw the Black Cats reduced to ten men for much of the game after Lee Cattermole was booked twice in second seasons, showed that Coleman’s methods are having an impact.
It is also apparent that Sunderland shouldn’t be anywhere near the position they currently find themselves in. They have a striker in Lewis Grabban, who is one of the most reliable goalscorers in the division – although Bournemouth may capatalise on this during January, and a collection of creative players including the likes of Aiden McGeady and Duncan Whamore, who can provide good service to the forward. The difficulty is in protecting an overworked back four that should be sturdier than it currently is – especially as the Black Cats can count upon John O’Shea at the heart of it. Coleman seems to have addressed this problem by switching to three centre halves at Molineux and, with his old Wales and Fulham team-mate Kit Symons alongside him in the dugout, it is no surprise that Sunderland have become more organised at the back.
Fulham have failed to put away opponents convincing this season, often allowing their opponents routes back into contest that should have long been over. Even Birmingham, probably the poorest side Fulham have faced so far, should have levelled matters after Kevin McDonald conceded a penalty with a senseless high challenge into the box. What has really irked Jokanovic is the fact that Fulham pass up so many presentable chances in front of goal – indeed, the Serbian now seems to have stopped selecting conventional strikers altogether. Stefan Johansen seems a rather strange choice for a false nine, but the fluidity that created Sheyi Ojo’s clever winner against the Blues suggests that it can work.
This is about as close to a banana skin as you can get today for Fulham. It certainly represents the definition of a lose-lose game for Jokanovic, who has come under heavy fire from a section of the fanbase due to Fulham’s less than auspicious start to the season. Beat Sunderland well and it won’t surprise anybody given the Black Cats’ lack of home form, but lose and the knvies will be sharpened. Jokanovic, like Coleman, doesn’t only sentiment to get in the way of success – and the only outcome both managers will be interested in come the final whistle.
MY FULHAM XI (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks, Odoi, Kalas, Ream; McDonald, Norwood, Cairney; Ojo, R. Sessegnon, Kamara. Subs: Button, Djalo, Edun, Johansen, de la Torre, Fonte.