Arguably Fulham’s toughest test of the season arrives this evening with the visit of league leaders, Wolverhampton Wanderers, to Craven Cottage for a mouthwatering tie that falls in the middle of the Whites’ most difficult run of the fixtures as they seek to sustain a serious push for promotion themselves. Slavisa Jokanovic’s side head into tonight’s encounter in front of the television cameras unbeaten in eleven games and still hoping to haul in Cardiff City, who currently have an eight point advantage over the Whites in second place. They will want to right the wrongs of a forgettable November evening at Molineux when Fulham were well beaten by half time and when relegation looked a more likely prospect than challenging at the right end of the table.
Facing Wolves, who have firmly established themselves as the best side outside the top flight over the course of the season under Nuno Espirito Santo, is a daunting prospect given the quality of the football they have played this season and their seemingly irresistible ascent to the Premier League. Jokanovic has already proclaimed them a Premier League side and shared his irritation yesterday that Fulham merely rolled over on their visit to the Midlands before Christmas – something the Serbian will seek to improve upon under the Cottage floodlights this evening.
The visitors didn’t have to be anywhere near their formidable best to triumph in the reverse fixture, with two deadly set piece deliveries from Barry Douglas doing the trick. Romain Saiss, who could replace the suspended Reuben Neves in central midfield later on, headed the first goal before Léo Bonatini added a second with the Fulham defence looking all at sea. Wolves head down to London in good heart – and not just because of their all but unassailable position atop the Championship table. They’ve won on their last three league visits to the Cottage – sharing a goalless draw in an FA Cup tie – since a 5-0 drubbing pushed them closer to the Premier League exit door in 2012.
The club’s transformation from a side that were scrapping for their lives at the wrong end of the Championship has a lot to do with Nuno’s tactical acumen and assembling of a squad that could compete with plenty in the Premier League already as well as the influence of the ‘super agent’ Jorge Mendes, who advised Fosun International ahead of their takeover of the club and counts Nuno as his first ever client when he moved into the industry. Whilst the fulcrum of their midfield might be missing this evening, Wolves have plenty of weapons capable of bringing Fulham’s fine run to an abrupt end.
Adopting the 3-4-3 system that has swept English football this season, marauding wing backs Douglas and Irish international Matt Doherty force Ryan Fredericks and Matt Targett into doing far too much defensive work for Fulham’s liking. Conor Coady seems to be reaping the rewards of leaving Anfield and fulfilling the potential that had been whispered about at Melwood for many years whilst both Alfred N’Diaye and Morgan Gibbs-White, who helped England’s under 17s win the World Cup alongside Steven Sessegnon in the summer, will be hoping to shine in Neves’ absence in central midfield.
Nuno’s front three will pose real problems to a Fulham defence that hoping record four home league wins with clean sheets for the first time since Kevin Keegan’s side clinched the Division Two title by beating Gillingham in April 1999. Eyebrows were raised when Wolves broke their transfer record to bring in Ivan Cavaleiro from Monaco back in 2016 but the Portuguese winger followed a fine first season with eight goals and ten assists in 32 league appearances this term. Helder Costa’s rejuvenation on the opposition since Boxing Day has been quite remarkable and he comes to Craven Cottage in a rich vein of form, having scored twice in his last three outings. Then there’s Diego Jota, who has twelve goals and eight assists to his name, with Benik Afobe – who made a shock return to Molineux on loan in January – also awaiting a chance.
Fulham must hope they can quieten Wolves’ considerable artillery as well as finding some rare chinks in their armour at the other end. Jokanovic’s team selections have sprung some surprises lately and that unpredictability might in itself offer an opportunity tonight. Should he return to the starting line-up, Ryan Fredericks will be raring to make an impression following Cyrus Christie’s debut at Ashton Gate in midweek and Tomas Kalas should be chomping at the bit to resume his partnership with Tim Ream at the heart of the Fulham defence if he is preferred to Denis Odoi. The Fulham head coach hinted that Matt Targett had recovered from the ankle problem that curtailed his evening at Bristol City on Wednesday, which means he should be free to team up with Ryan Sessegnon, who has been a little below his admittedly sensational standards in the past two games.
Following the January transfer window, Jokanovic has an array of options to chose from in the forward areas. Lucas Piazon looked a little leggy in midweek and might well be replaced by Floyd Ayite if pure pace is what the Whites want to unleash tonight. Aleksandar Mitrovic is already looking leaner having swapped St. James Park for another tilt at promotion from the Championship – and the Serbian striker’s confidence should be sky high after breaking his Fulham duck on Wednesday night. He’ll need to be at his very best if the Whites are to cause a surprise this evening.
MY FULHAM XI (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks, Targett, Kalas, Ream; McDonald, Johansen, Cairney; Ayite, R. Sessegnon, Mitrovic. Subs: Button, Odoi, Norwood, Kebano, Piazon, Kamara, Fonte.