Fulham’s quest for an immediate return to the Premier League begins against newly-promoted Barnsley tomorrow afternoon. Scott Parker will be keen to lay down a marker early in the Championship season, but the Whites will face a tough test against the Tykes, whose promotion from League One last year was built upon some formidable home form.
Barnsley have one of the most impressive young managers in the game with Daniel Stendel, who has quickly imposed an attacking and progressive style of football on his charges. They might have lost four of the back five that secured a return to the Championship last season but their pre-season performances have been more promising than the results suggested, especially when they more than matched Sheffield United last weekend in what became an unflattering 4-1 defeat. Stendel has recruited heavily from overseas, bringing in Danish defender Mads Anderson, Senegalese centre half Bambo Diaby and Austrian goalkeeper Samuel Radlinger amongst others, as he prepares for a return to the Championship.
Barnsley’s biggest headache on the eve of their opener comes in the shape of striker Kieffer Moore. The 6ft 5in forward, earmarked as a key man ahead of the campaign, has bullied defences throughout his career – emerging through non-league football – and scored 17 goals in 31 appearances in League One last season. Barnsley have reportedly accepted a £4m offer from Wigan for Moore this afternoon and he will play no part in tomorrow’s fixture. That leaves Fulham having to handle their former forward Cauley Woodrow, who enjoyed his own purple patch following his permanent move to Oakwell last year, and will be eager to prove a point after not getting much of a look in under Slavisa Jokanovic. You wouldn’t bet against him finding the net.
Woodrow will fancy continuing his fine goalscoring form – he notched 19 in 35 appearances for Barnsley last season – against a Fulham defence that hasn’t been strengthened over the summer. Doubts remain about how miserly a back four that was brutally found out at Premier League level will prove in the Championship, especially as time has ticked on since Tim Ream’s outstanding displays two years ago. It appears as though Alfie Mawson has shaken off a knee injury that worried us all when he limped off against West Ham last weekend, although the identity of who will partner the former Swansea defender at the heart of the back four remains a subject for debate. Ream has only just returned to training following international duty, so Maxime Le Marchand could come in but the Frenchman will need to reduce the number of errors that undermined his first season in Fulham colours.
It looks as if Parker will try to revert to the style that Jokanovic’s side employed during their rise from the Championship. A possession-based, assertive brand of football will suit the likes of Stefan Johansen, back from a successful loan spell with West Brom, and Tom Cairney, who will prove critical as the creative hub in Fulham’s midfield. There may be doubts over the mobility of Kevin McDonald, who looked a little sluggish in a deeper midfield role in pre-season, but Fulham’s recruitment of two top-class wingers in Anthony Knockaert and Ivan Cavaleiro, who have proved devastating in this division in recent seasons, should provide excellent service to Aleksandar Mitrovic, who has to be the league’s most potent striker.
Getting off to a good start in a league that is as gruelling as the Championship is crucial. Both Parker and captain Cairney have already warned their side that Barnsley will likely fly out of the gate in a bid to surprise Fulham and the Londoners could well have a target on their backs in the early weeks of the season. The manager’s relative inexperience might be a concern, especially as we have yet to see whether he has the tactical flexibility to outwit opponents on a consistent basis, but the mood in the camp seems positive and a rare away win would get the Whites off to a great start.
MY FULHAM XI (4-3-3): Bettinelli; S. Sessegnon, Bryan, Mawson, Le Marchand; McDonald, Johansen, Cairney; Cavaleiro, Knockaert, Mitrovic. Subs: Rodak, Christie, Odoi, O’Riley, Kebano, Kamara, Fonte.