Fulham’s promotion push faces another serious test with the visit of Leeds United to Craven Cottage this evening, with Paul Heckingbottom urging his players to use the remainder of the season to spoil a few parties and show the sort of quality and spirit that has been lacking from their displays to date to this term. Nothing would match the new Leeds’ manager’s words more than ending the Whites’ extraordinary seventeen match unbeaten league run – something which would probably end Fulham’s own hopes of catching second-placed Cardiff City.
Heckingbottom has arguably been one of England’s most impressive young managers over the past few years, on account of his achievements with Barnsley. In his second spell as caretaker manager at Oakwell following Lee Johnson’s departure in 2016, Heckingbottom – a popular former defender who spent two years with the Tykes – won the club’s first cup final in more than a century by beating Oxford in the Football League Trophy at Wembley and then repeated the feat at the national stadium against Millwall, earning the Tykes promotion from League One. He promoted a number of the talents he had nurtured as Barnsley’s youth development coach to the first team and saw his young charges finish ninth in an impressive return to England’s second tier.
Heckingbottom’s move to Elland Road, given the dysfunction that has characterised Leeds’ own woes in recent years, might have been something of a surprise but if he is given the team and resources that have been afforded to few of his predecessors that this impressive coach is capable of guiding one of the country’s sleeping giants back to the top flight. He had an immediate impact at Leeds, inspiring a comeback from 2-0 down against play-off chasing Bristol City in his first game in charge, but only ended a run of six points from their last 24 on Good Friday with a 2-1 win over Bolton, where he switched to a 4-4-2.
That success ended a run of four games within a win and Leeds will travel to London in good heart, especially as they are unbeaten in their last three visits to Craven Cottage. Heckingbottom is currently battling a hefty injury list – and his side will be somewhat patched up this evening, with seven first-teamers missing. Captain Liam Cooper could well miss the remainder of the season having torn his thigh muscle last week, whilst former Brentford midfielder Adam Forshaw’s Championship campaign could be over as well after he suffered a recurrence of the calf problem that bedeviled his 2017/2018 season before he joined Leeds from Middlesbrough in the new year.
Full back Lauren de Bock is sidelined with a hamstring problem and Heckingbottom hasn’t been able to call upon the likes of Tyler Roberts, Luke Ayling or Conor Shaughnessy since taking over at Elland Road two months ago. He is hopeful that Roberts may make an appearance before the end of the season, but won’t be rushing one of the club’s most exciting January signings back into action. Similarly, Kemar Roofe won’t be risked despite returning to training after missing six games with a calf complaint.
Heckingbottom has insisted that his side won’t try and sit back at Craven Cottage, fearing being passed to death by what he describes as ‘the league’s best team at the moment’. The visitors will surely be combative, as they currently lead the Championship in terms of tackles made, and the large travelling contingent will be hoping to see the prodigiously talented Rolando Vieira blunt Fulham’s fluent football in the centre of the midfield. He could reprise Saturday’s successful partnership with Eunan O’Kane and striker Caleb Ekuban will be looking to kick on after breaking his Championship duck against Bolton. Samuel Saiz, impressive in the reverse fixture at Elland Road back in August, could be in line for a start having returned from a hamstring problem as a second-half substitute at the weekend.
Leeds’ desire, as well as their squad of technically-gifted players, could pose a real threat to Fulham’s lengthy unbeaten run. Pablo Hernandez will be a real threat on the left of a likely midfield four, whilst German striker Pierre-Michel Lasogga – a real hit since his loan move from Hamburg in the summer – will be eager to add to his ten goals that see him lead Leeds’ scoring charts. The 26 year-old could prove particularly dangerous in the air and from set plays, although he’s far from limited with the ball at his feet.
Slavisa Jokanovic suggested that his side looked a little lethargic at Carrow Road after their international exertions of the past week. He could freshen up his starting line-up by recalling Tomas Kalas at centre half, with the Czech Republic international now fit again after being laid low for a month by a hip problem. That might be harsh on Denis Odoi, who put his costly error against QPR firmly behind him with a composed display in the clean sheet at Norwich. The Fulham boss is likely to restore teenager Ryan Sessegnon to the left wing berth he has made his own since January – especially after the youngster stretched the game to great effect after his entrance in the second half on Friday afternoon.
Aboubakar Kamara will also be eager to earn a recall, although Jokanovic is unlikely to drop his compatriot Aleksandar Mitrovic, despite the on-loan Newcastle striker looking a little sluggish in East Anglia on Friday. The Serbian striker might not have scored for two games – but he certainly gives the opposition centre halves a serious workout. As Sarah’s already suggested, Tom Cairney will be hoping to line up another special display against the side who let him go aged sixteen on account of his slender build. What a colossal blunder that looks like now.
MY FULHAM XI (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks, Targett, Kalas, Ream; McDonald, Johansen, Cairney; Ayite, R. Sessegnon, Mitrovic. Subs: Button, Odoi, Christie, Norwood, Kebano, Fonte, Kamara.