After the disappointment of conceding a late leveller to Wolves on Boxing Day, this afternoon’s visit of Huddersfield Town to Craven Cottage is simply a must win for Fulham. Wednesday’s point might have lifted Claudio Ranieri’s side off the foot of the Premier League table but it is only wins that will secure top flight football next year – and a victory over a relegation rival would have an immense psychological impact going into the New Year.
A win would also help banish the memory of one of the most spineless Fulham performances I have witnessed – a limp 1-0 defeat at Huddersfield last month that proved to be the beginning of the end for Slavisa Jokanovic. The Whites showed little stomach for the fight that night not registering a single shot on target and were fortunate to have only been beaten by a single goal. The lack of desire convinced Shahid Khan to start interviewing replacements for Jokanovic, who was sacked after a much-improved display at Liverpool.
Ranieri has certainly made Fulham harder to play through and defensively more solid. The switch to three centre backs, which secured a first clean sheet of the season last weekend at Newcastle was a success, and, despite the agony of Romain Saiss’ Boxing Day equaliser, also worked against Wolves, who were far from their fluent selves for much of that game. The Italian has sacrificed some of Fulham’s fluidity up front in the name of being tougher to beat – which was probably necessary after Jokanovic’s more adventurous approach left the Whites ridiculously open at the back.
Fulham did carve out a whole host of chances against Wolves and it is that lack of a killer instinct that could prove costly in their battle for survival. Aleksandar Mitrovic, who led the line superbly at the Cottage the other tough, was uncharacteristically unable to take any of the eight chances that came his way leading the tough Serbian to admit that he felt like crying in a post-match interview. Ranieri has backed his big striker to end a goalscoring drought that now stretches to six matches.
Aleksandar’s confidence is good. Of course for a goalscorer, goals are life. But he’s feeling positive. He played very well against Wolves. He was unlucky and that’s the life of a striker – some days momentum goes well and on others its worse. He’s ready to start scoring again.
I want the team always to be together and he made a very good sacrifice. He closed the space and was ready to counter attack. It’s important that the team continues to create the chances. He didn’t make mistakes against Wolves, he just had bad luck.
Perhaps the most vibrant display on Boxing Day came from a man who has enjoyed a new lease of life under Ranieri. Aboubakar Kamara’s raw pace and powerful physique makes him the perfect example of what the new Fulham boss wants from his side and there were times when he looked absolutely unstoppable against Wolves. He has grabbed two goals since the Italian came in and, although he was tiring significantly towards the end of the second half, it was noticeable that Fulham barely got up the pitch once he had been substituted. On this sort of imposing form, he looks tailor made for a rampaging role down the right in Ranieri’s new system that is based on pragmatism rather than possession.
Ranieri should also try and find a way to fit Ryan Sessegnon back into the side. The teenager has shrugged off the groin injury that has hampered his participation during December and showed his uncanny ability to find the back of net when he came off the bench to such great affect on Wednesday. Sessegnon could slot in either at wing back or in a more advanced position and the speedy young winger could edge out Andre Schurrle, whose performances have lacked a little bit of zest of late.
Huddersfield might now be bottom of the table, but they certainly shouldn’t be underestimated. Their spirit has surprised Fulham once already this season and they will desperate to arrest a run of six straight defeats at Craven Cottage this afternoon. The Terriers have one of the league’s most gifted playmakers in the league, the excellent Australian Aaaron Mooy, at their disposal – although he may miss out today through injury – as well as a top manager in David Wagner, who has already achieved miracles to take Town up to the top flight and keep them there.
Wagner knows that a lack of goals has been Huddersfield’s problem. They have scored just twelve, the lowest total in the Premier League, and not one of those has come from a recognised striker. The German has made a new forward a priority in January, with Liverpool striker Dominic Solanke and Monaco man Stevan Jovetic said to be among his targets. He will certainly have his side right up for the battle this afternoon – and Fulham will need to deliver a more convincing performance that they managed in front of the television cameras in Yorkshire last month.
MY FULHAM XI (3-4-3): Rico; Odoi, Mawson, Ream; Christie, Bryan, Chambers, Seri; Kamara, R. Sessegnon, Mitrovic. Subs: Bettinelli, Le Marchand, McDonald, Cairney, Schurrle, Ayite, Vietto.