After the euphoria of Saturday’s win over Aston Villa, Fulham’s crucial bunch of fixtures continues with a trip to Ashton Gate tonight to take on another of their promotion rivals in Bristol City. Don’t be fooled by the Robins’ last two results – where they contrived to let a three goal lead slip against struggling Sunderland and lost a two-goal advantage at Leeds on Sunday – because Lee Johnson’s side have already proven their credentials as a top side in this division. The Bristol City coach, who used to follow Fulham as a boy, has already guided his side to an impressive win at Craven Cottage this season and will be desperate for a reaction from his players this evening.
Johnson’s achievements this year – especially when you consider that the BBC Radio Bristol phone-in following Fulham’s 2-0 win at City this time last year was full of callers demanding his departure – shouldn’t be understated. Having kept the Robins up against the odds last term, expectations of consolidation in the Championship would have been realistic in B53 over the summer but Johnson has taken his side to new heights by assembling an honest, hard-working squad that has gone on to surprise most in the division and across the country. Their run in the EFL Cup – where City could consider themselves unfortunate to be eliminated by Manchester City at the semi-final stage over two legs last month – was staggering, particularly when it sat alongside their outstanding league form that – even with the recent disappointments – leaves them in prime position to be involved at the play-offs come May at the very least.
Johnson’s tactical approach hasn’t been revolutionary, but it has beaten plenty of more established names in the second tier already this term. Barring a late rethink due to injuries and suspensions, City should line-up in their usual 4-4-2 with their wide midfielders venturing infield and the system’s width provided by their flying full-backs, in a similar way to how Ryan Fredericks and Matt Targett have got forward to support Fulham’s attacks over the past month. The Robins’ attacks have been spearheaded this season by homegrown talent Bobby Reid, who has spent sixteen years with the club, and scored an impressive 15 goals, the latest of which came at Leeds last wekeend in 37 appearances, so far. Fulham should know all about the intelligent 25 year-old, particularly given his penchant for scoring at Craven Cottage.
An industrious midfield may miss the energy of the suspended Marlon Pack this evening, but Johnson has plenty of options to replace the former Portsmouth and Cheltenham Town midfielder. Josh Brownhill will have to shake off a calf strain to feature against Fulham but his energy could be utilised effectively, whilst Liam Walsh may come into contention to fill Pack’s position in the centre of the park. Attacking midfielder Jamie Paterson may receive a recall after missing the trip to Elland Road, whilst the return of Nathan Baker from a two-match ban might see Johnson reorganise his back four with the ex-Aston Villa defender slotting back in at centre back.
Slavisa Jokanovic has already talked about the dangers of underestimating Bristol City and he will need no reminding of his opposite number’s tactical acumen. Johnson has beaten Jokanovic four times in previous fixtures – which is the Serbian’s worst record against any coach currently operating in the English game. It would be a terrible time for that record to be extended, with Fulham looking to follow up their fine success over Villa with another win in Bristol this evening. Jokanovic and Tom Cairney have highlighted Fulham’s new-found strength in depth, which could be crucial over the course of the Championship run-in, and it remains to be seen whether the Whites will be unchanged from the weekend.
The only injury concern will surround Cairney’s knee, which has been a worry all season. The Scottish midfielder, who enlivens Fulham’s precise passing when he plays, said he felt ‘much stronger’ after the win over Aston Villa – which was his first start for the club since the beginning of January – but it may be that two games in four days is just too much of a risk given how important he will prove in the run in. In that case, Jokanovic may ask Ollie Norwood to reprise some of his excellent displays since his summer arrival on loan from Brighton and Hove Albion.
Jokanovic could ring the changes have brought in Floyd Ayite and Aleksandar Mitrovic to successfully see off Steve Bruce’s side on Saturday. Mitrovic would be the ideal choice to give Aden Flint a physical test after dominating John Terry at the weekend, but away from home Fulham’s lightning breaks have often been built around speed, which would lend itself to picking Aboubakar Kamara. Lucas Piazon, a scorer at Ashton Gate last year who dropped down to the bench on Saturday, could come back into contention as well.
MY FULHAM XI (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks, Targett, Kalas, Ream; McDonald, Johansen, Cairney; Ayite, R. Sessegnon, Mitrovic. Subs: Button, Christie, Odoi, Norwood, Piazon, Kebano, Kamara.