Slavisa Jokanovic certainly struck the right note earlier this week when he stressed to his players the importance of not taking Bolton Wanderers lightly. Footballers are fallible humans after all – and relaxing a little bit after a six-game unbeaten run might come easily to a few members of the Fulham squad. But the Serbian head coach’s mantra all week at Motspur Park has been about reminding his side not to rest on their laurels. As he said a few weeks ago, nothing is decided in January. Just ask loveable Leeds United.
The other aspect of what is an intriguing contest at the Macron Stadium this afternoon is Bolton’s improving form as they battle against relegation. Like Jokanovic, Phil Parkinson won’t tolerate anything less than 100 per cent commitment to the cause and, operating on a threadbare budget and having just lost the focal point of his attack towards the end of the transfer window, it is a testament to his underrated managerial ability that Wanderers are currently three points above the drop zone, with a game in hand on their relegation rivals. The Trotters have lost just one of their last five fixtures and proven incredibly tough to beat on their own turf, tasting defeat in the league at the Macron only once since September.
Last Friday night against Bristol City, a side who have displayed already this season that their aspirations of playing above the Championship are not at all misplaced, was another clear example of why that Bolton home record exists. Wanderers were defensively disciplined, diligent and very tough to break down. Parkinson also deserves credit for adapting in the aftermath of Madine’s departure, switching from his favoured 4-2-3-1 to an innovative 3-5-1-1 formation that both smothered the visitors’ attacking instincts and posed a real problem for them at the other end of the pitch – with Sammy Ameobi playing behind Nottingham Forest loanee Tyler Walker, the son of ex-England defender Des.
Parkinson has quietly assembled a squad full of real quality at this level. Zach Clough, who also arrived on loan from the City Ground just before the deadline, is back at Bolton and showed glimpses as a substitute against Lee Johnson’s side of the sparkling ability that saw him talked about as the next big thing. Wanderers will likely be able to welcome back the highly-rated West Ham defender Reece Burke after a back injury and the England youth international should help bolster a back four seeking back-to-back clean sheets for only the second time this term.
Bolton are understandably high on confidence with Mark Beevers, who was brilliantly effective during the reverse fixture at Craven Cottage in October, swatting aside the suggestion that Fulham could pass their way around Parkinson’s men this afternoon. Jokanovic’s team found that proposition far too tricky in the reverse fixture – and had to be bailed out by Tom Cairney’s last-gasp header. Parkinson suggested Ameobi could test Fulham’s recent defensive improvement – and given how the Whites’ defence has struggled against forwards of Ameobi’s ilk, it can’t be considered wide of the mark.
Fulham will probably start favourites by dint of their remarkable recent run that has lifted the Londoners into fifth place, but they can’t afford to start believing their good press of late. Jokanovic has a few selection issues to settle, especially if Tom Cairney is fit enough to wear the captain’s armband from the outset after the Scottish midfielder returned to full training on Thursday. With Sheyi Ojo also back following some time on the sidelines, Fulham’s squad is as close to full strength as it has been all season and that makes Jokanovic’s line-up an interesting one to pontificate over.
The most fevered debate will probably come in the forward areas. Aleksandar Mitrovic most be pushing for a start after his debut changed the direction of a game against Nottingham Forest that might have been drifting towards a draw before his introduction. That might be both harsh on Rui Fonte – and a potential mistake, if Jokanovic’s intention is to try and move the ball quickly on the floor in the final third. Lucas Piazon, whose goal broke Forest’s stubborn resilience, should continue from the right with Sessegnon operating on the left wing. The exclusions of the likes of Neeskens Kebano, Floyd Ayite and Aboubakar Kamara might leave Jokanovic with possibility the strongest substitutes’ bench he’s ever had during his Fulham tenure.
MY FULHAM XI (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks, Targett, Kalas, Ream; McDonald, Norwood, Johansen; Piazon, R. Sessegnon, Mitrovic. Subs: Button, S. Sessegnon, Cairney, Kebano, Ayite, Fonte, Kamara.