The Easter weekend might be a time for relaxation and reflection for many, but that certainly doesn’t include professional footballers. This time of year has a history of making and breaking seasons – and represents an almost mini-Christmas period, with a couple of testing fixtures in quick succession – and Fulham will be hoping for a successful return to domestic action as they look to get their push for the Premier League back on track after such a disappointing draw with Queens Park Rangers in the west London derby last weekend.
Slavisa Jokanovic was blunt about Fulham’s shortcomings in that game and how his side’s second half showing, having established a 2-0 lead at half-time, was well short of the standards required. The head coach took his fair share of criticism after that abject second 45 minutes, especially with a baffling double substitution that saw the Whites rhythm further disrupted at a time when Rangers were penning the home side back in their own half, but he remains committed to his own philosophy and belief that Fulham’s best chance of winning promotion is in outpassing their opponents in what remains a physically demanding league. Such an approach is borne out by the statistics, with the Whites having completed 8,718 passes in opposition territory this term – more than a thousand more than anyone else in the Championship – and the fewest long balls in the division.
The Serbian knows that this afternoon’s opponents, Norwich City, will represent a real test of Fulham’s overarching ambitions of returning to the top flight. The prevailing opinion is that second place is now out of reach even the derby disappointment, with a relentless Cardiff City now seven points clear and having a game in hand, and that the Whites will have to endure the drama of the play-offs – where Fulham have a dismal record – for a second season running. Jokanovic is sticking with his mantra of taking everything a game at a time and refusing to look any further than taking on the Canaries this weekend, with Daniel Farke’s side vying for recognition alongside the league’s top four as one of the Championship’s in-form sides.
Jokanovic has already warned his side not to be lulled into a false sense of security ahead of today’s encounter by Norwich’s lowly position in the table, even suggesting that the Canaries could yet feature in the play-off shake up despite starting the Easter period some ten points off sixth place. That Farke’s squad possesses plenty of quality is without doubt, but there is an enduring sense of disappointment around East Anglia after only a couple of wins since February has consigned City to middle of the road mediocrity as we come around to the business end of the campaign.
The Canaries have been badly let down by their form at Carrow Road this season. Where teams at this level like to make their home ground a difficult place to visit and build something of a fortress in such an unpredictable division, Norwich have fallen badly short in that regard. Farke’s men have managed just six home league wins this term and have often struggled to carry an offensive threat on their home turf with Nelson Oliveira – Fulham’s scourge on the opening day of the season with his late equaliser at Craven Cottage – being singled out by many for not contributing enough goals this year. Some Norwich fans have been vociferous in blaming the board for their current plight, with arguably not enough being done to either supplement or eventually replace both Cameron’s Jerome presence and goals in the past two transfer windows.
Farke, a progressive manager whose star doesn’t seem to waned despite what has to be considered an underwhelming season, deserves some credit for bringing through a promising clutch of youngsters into the first team this year. He has overseen James Maddison’s emergence into a player who could certainly move up a level, with the midfield playmaker contributing thirteen goals and seven assists from an attacking midfield berth as he has needed little time to adapt to the demands of regular Championship football in his first full season at Carrow Road. Farke has also introduced the impressive Jamal Lewis to the senior side at left back, who has flourished in his fourteen first-team outings to date, and only appears to get better with more exposure to senior football.
The former Borussia Dortmund reserve team manager has also enjoyed great success with his recruits from German football. Christoph Zimmerman has enjoyed a commanding campaign at centre back and looks a real steal having arrived from the Dortmund second string on a free transfer back in the summer, whilst Tom Trybull, who also came in for nothing from Den Haag, has added both tenacity and drive to the heart of the Canaries’ midfield. When placed alongside the likes of Alex Pritchard, Timm Klose, Grant Hanley and the promising Angus Gunn in goal, it is hard to avoid the feeling that Norwich could have put together a more consistent campaign than the one they have currently managed.
The Canaries are likely to be without forwards Onel Hernandez, who has experienced hamstring trouble over the past week, and a ‘jaded’ Marley Watkins, whose exertions with Wales in the China Cup on international duty will have to be managed carefully by Farke over the next week or so but the home side will be able to call upon defender Grant Hanley, Oliveira and midfielder Alex Tettey. Hanley is available despite pulling out of the Scotland squad last week, even if Farke admits he will need to ‘be careful’ not to aggravate the centre half’s injury issues any further.
Fulham have no new injury worries after the weekend and Jokanovic’s team selection could be interesting again. Tomas Kalas will be pushing for a recall after Denis Odoi’s untimely slip against QPR and the Czech centre back will have done his cause no harm by coming through a couple of competitive outings in the Far East at the China Cup, including netting his first international goal against the hosts. The visitors will be hoping Aleskandar Mitrovic can take his own impressive international form – having scored twice against Nigeria at Barnet for Serbia on Tuesday night – back into the domestic arena after a rather anonymous afternoon against Rangers a fortnight ago.
MY FULHAM XI (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks, Targett, Kalas, Ream; McDonald, Johansen, Cairney; Ayite, R. Sessegnon, Mitrovic. Subs: Button, Christie, Odoi, Norwood, Ojo, Fonte, Kamara.