The disappointment of Saturday’s below-par opening to the Premier League campaign remains with us. It is difficult to think of many harder starts that the fixture computer could have handed a newly-promoted side (Leeds had the toughest assignment and approached it with adventure and style, ultimately falling fractionally short), but Scott Parker won’t have been pleased with the basic errors that undermined his gameplan. The silver lining is that it should have convinced the powers that be of a need for a new centre back.
Football in the coronavirus era is so frenetic that there’s another fixture right around the corner. That’s no bad thing as it allows the Whites to set their minds on a fresh challenge – and gives an opportunity to boost morale, which is vital in a fight against relegation. In Fulham’s case, the draw for the EFL Cup has thrown up a trip to League One Ipswich – one of the great away trips of recent years, sadly unmakeable for any fans at the moment.
I’ve been one of those Fulham fans openly critical of the club’s approach to the Cups for many years. As one of the select few clubs never to have won a major trophy, giving either Cup competition – especially the League Cup, now diminished to the point that the leading sides put out a shadow squad in the early rounds before being enticed by the lure of a European spot when the competition thins out – seems like a no-brainer. Given that Fulham’s whole season is built around staying in the top flight, I’d relax my usually hardline stance that we should select as strong a team as possible, but there’s plenty to ponder as Scott Parker considers the precise composition of his team for Portman Road.
For one thing, there are a number of new signings to integrate. None of them featured on the opening day, with Parker quite forthright in saying that they simply hadn’t trained enough with their new team-mates. That seemed sensible in the cases of Alphonse Areola, Kenny Tete and Ola Aina – who all arrived days before the first fixture – but it was puzzling to see Mario Lemina, who has had a fortnight or so since signing on loan from Southampton, left out of the squad altogether. Most of these players should feature on Wednesday, with the side likely to be a mish-mash of new arrivals and some of the sparkling young talent on the fringes of the senior squad.
It is probably the right time to give Areola a taste of English football. His pedigree – PSG, Real Madrid and a host of other French and Spanish sides – is hard to quibble with, even if he hasn’t really been a regular in recent years. He remains a World Cup winner, still highly thought of enough to feature in the French national squad, and won’t be coming to London simply to sit on the bench. There’s always been a concern that Marek Rodak is a little slow to come off his line – highlighted by Arsenal’s second goal on Saturday, although the fault was hardly his alone – and Areola will have a chance to impress.
The shape of the defence that plays in front of him will be intriguing. Tete should be the first-choice right back going forward, he’s strong defensively, has the speed our back line has sorely lacked since the departure of Ryan Fredericks a couple of summers ago, and is adventurous enough to flourish in Parker’s preferred system. Ola Aina could fill in at left back – showing his versatility – but that would deny Antonee Robinson the ideal opportunity for his long-awaited debut, whilst the big question will be whether Parker wants to persevere with the central defensive pairing that looked so shaky against the Gunners or give Maxime Le Marchand a run out. Could Jerome Opoku, so impressive on loan with Accrington last season, finally earn a senior start?
The midfield could feature Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa, who added plenty of purpose in the forward areas when he came off the bench at the weekend. I’ve always thought the Cameroonian could be a real asset in English football if he channelled his physicality effectively and he appears to have become a more forward-thinking passer during his loan spell in Spain last season. Lemina could slot into a fairly formidable midfield and it will be interesting to see whether the old stalwarts, Stefan Johansen and Kevin McDonald, are given a rare first-team outing. If not, expect them to head out on loan before too long.
There might be opportunities for Neeskens Kebano, a willing worker in tough circumstances on Saturday, and Anthony Knockaert, who I felt was unfortunate to have missed on against Arsenal, out wide. I’d like to see someone like Sylvester Jasper, who had a tremendous breakthrough season last year, rewarded for his development with some game time. The winger needs regular football to further his genuine talent and I think he’d relish the chance to run at a few League One defenders.
Parker suggested in his post-match comments that Aleksandar Mitrovic’s exclusion on Saturday was due to his international commitments with Serbia meaning he wasn’t able to take part in much training at Motspur Park. Logically, that should see him get some more minutes ahead of what already looks like a pivotal trip to Elland Road on Saturday – but it will be interesting to see if Parker starts our talisman at Portman Road. Without him, as the weekend defeat proved, the Whites lack potency up front – however hard Kamara works. There should be a spot on the bench at least for Jay Stansfield, whose eye-catching cameos last season suggested he’s far more than just a goal poacher.
I’d be interested to read your line-ups for Ipswich in the comments …