It only seems like yesterday when Tom Cairney stroked that sumptuous winner into the Aston Villa net in the glorious Wembley Stadium sunshine, but the new Premier League season is upon us. We’ve had a World Cup to distract us over the summer, but every Fulham fan has been counting down the 77 days between that memorable day in May and the Whites’ return to the Premier League. The opening game at Craven Cottage was always going to be a big day, but the fact that former Fulham manager Roy Hodgson returns with Crystal Palace this afternoon, makes it extra special.
Fulham’s incredible exploits in the summer transfer window have whetted our appetite even more – if that’s even possible. Slavisa Jokanovic has a squad that looks like it could be competitive in the top flight, but the Serbian head coach has urged his side not to get carried away on the eve of the big kick-off. He’s wary of maximising expectations following a strong close to the window and Palace, always well-organised and tough to beat under Hodgson, made some good signings of their own, bringing in Max Cheikhou Kouyate from West Ham, Jordan Ayew from Swansea and most notably, the highly-rated Max Meyer from Schalke. As we know from his time by the Thames, Hodgson is not the type of manager to make sweeping changes during a window. Instead, he will carefully identify the areas where his squad can be improved and Palace should have another good season with him at the helm. The Eagles will definitely provide an intriguing test of our own suitability for the top flight.
You would expect that Palace will line up in a similar fashion to way they finished last season. With only Yohan Cabaye and Reuben Loftus-Cheek no longer being at the club, they will still have a very recognisable Hodgson identity about them. Palace will likely prove tough to break down and be happy to play on the counter with the likes of Zaha, Townsend and Benteke up top. They also have the pace and trickery with Van Aanholt down the left and the creativity of Milivojevic through the middle. Palace will be pleased to have been able to ward off interest in the excellent Wifried Zaha, which was arguably their most successful bit of business of the whole summer. His presence and the sheer quality of attacking talent could make for an open game with both teams eager to make a strong start.
Jokanovic’s first eleven of the season will also be eagerly awaited. Tim Ream’s absence with a problem picked up in training is a blow, especially given his importance to that promotion winning side, and with Alfie Mawson also missing, Fulham may need to switch their back four around a few times early in the campaign. It could be Arsenal loanee Calum Chambers and French defender Maxime Le Marchand, who has at least had the benefit of a full pre-season, at the heart of the defence with Cyrus Christie at right back. I also expect Christie to start at right back after the summer transfer of Fredericks to West Ham. The arrival of Joe Bryan should allow Ryan Sessegnon to roam threateningly on the left wing. Jokanovic has a dilemma over who to select in goal, having spent £5m on Fabri and signing Sergio Rico on deadline day,
Given that we have home advantage tomorrow, I expect us to take the game to Palace with our fluid passing and high work rate. I think the first 15 minutes will be cagey but I am hoping for a positive result. I am in a positive mood for this season and I expect us to just edge a nervy encounter at the cottage tomorrow.
MY FULHAM LINE UP (4-3-3): Fabri; Christie, Le Marchand, Chambers, Bryan; McDonald, Cairney, Seri; Schurrle, Sessegnon, Mitrovic.
PREDICTION: Fulham 2-1 Crystal Palace