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Opposition in focus – Derby County

Another helping of Friday night football sees Fulham make the journey north to face Phillip Cocu’s Derby County side at Pride Park this evening.

Tonight’s televised game is our first visit to Derbyshire since the memorable Championship play-off semi final and it comes off the back of a disappointing defeat at home to Barnsley last weekend. If Scott Parker needs to lift his troops, he might be able to raise spirits by recalling Fulham’s comfortable 3-0 dispatching of the Rams in November. Cocu and Derby have to be disappointed with their season so far, with the club currently nine points off the play-off places in thirteenth, although the arrival of veteran Wayne Rooney, who has scored nine goals in twelve appearances against Fulham, seems to have sparked something of a revival. Derby are unbeaten in four and have scored sixteen goals in their last twelve league outings.

The Rams, with Cocu finally able to transmit his vision to a squad that contains plenty of quality, probably still have realistic promotion aspirations – especially with how crazy this division remains. As well as Rooney, County have plenty of quality within their squad. Creative midfielder Tom Lawrence has seven goals to his name already this time and former Fulham striker Chris Martin, who has formed a potent partnership with the evergreen Martyn Waghorn up front, will be eager to remind us all of his talent. The pair have plundered nineteen goals between them so far this season.

The home side will have to do without the experienced Tom Huddlestone, a regular scourge of Fulham, who has succumbed to a long-standing calf problem. American midfielder Duane Holmes, scorer of a stunning equaliser at Middlesbrough, is also missing due to a leg injury but Cocu should be able to welcome back the former Liverpool defender Andre Wisdom from a hamstring strain.

Parker’s injury concerns are familiar. Harrison Reed is likely to miss out again, whilst defenders Alfie Mawson, Terence Kongolo and Maxime Le Marchand are long-term absentees. The Whites are in dire need of both a performance and a big result at Pride Park to breathe new life into their promotion push, especially after their meek capitulation against bottom of the table Barnsley. 700 Fulham fans are making the journey up to Derby tonight as Parker aims to put the pressure back on Leeds before Saturday’s fixtures.

MY FULHAM XI (4-3-3): Rodak; Christie, Odoi, Hector, Bryan; McDonald, Cairney, Onomah; Decordova-Reid, Mitrovic, Cavaleiro

My prediction: Derby County 1-2 Fulham.

Opposition in focus – Barnsley

Scott Parker will urge his Fulham debut to sweep away the disappointment of failing to beat Millwall on Wednesday night by seeing off Barnsley at a wet and windy Craven Cottage tomorrow afternoon.

The Fulham boss will need no reminding of Barnsley’s ability to surprise after the Tykes inflicted a shock 1-0 defeat upon Parker’s men in south Yorkshire on the opening day of the season. Barnsley have failed to build on that outstanding start with popular German manager Daniel Stendel, who masterminded their return to the second tier, paying for a poor run of results with his job. Although Gerhard Struber initially stitched together an excellent home run, Barnsley have mustered just four league wins all season and they are now cut adrift at the bottom of the table.

They have recorded just six points on the road all season, although both Struber and skipper Mike Bahre were in upbeat mood about their survival chances as they looked ahead to the trip to London. The Austrian coach could be pinning his escape hopes on a familiar face to Fulham fans in Cauley Woodrow, who has scored nine Championship goals this term, and has hardly stopped finding the net since he made the switch to Oakwell last year. Woodrow and the ex-Portsmouth striker Conor Chaplin have proven particularly potent up front, combing for a total of 23 goals, which represents 62% of Barnsley’s total for the season.

Struber will have to do without the services of first-choice goalkeeper Samuel Radlinger, who was outstanding against Fulham at Oakwell in August. Midfielder Marcel Ritzmaier will also miss out, whilst Bambo Diaby is banned and Mads Andersen will be rested. He will hope that by juggling his side the Tykes can produce the type of dynamic display that so frustrated Parker’s side on the opening day – and benefit from making a sell-out home crowd restless.

Just as it seemed that Fulham’s own injury crisis was easing came the news that Terence Kongolo, who had only just broken into the side following his loan move from Huddersfield, will miss the rest of the season with a foot problem. Winger Anthony Knockaert should be ready to return having missed the trip to the Den through illness and it seems that Harrison Reed, a big miss in central midfield, could be close to full fitness after starting training again this week. Maxime Le Marchand joins Kongolo and Alfie Mawson as long-term central defensive absences.

Fulham might have missed a golden opportunity to leapfrong Leeds in south east London earlier this week, but with Marcelo Bielsa’s side facing a tough test against Bristol City, a win over beleaguered Barnsley could see the Whites in the automatic promotion places. On what is sure to be an emotional afternoon after the death of Fulham legend Jimmy Conway, it might fall to the Cottage faithful to roar Parker’s men on to a vital victory.

MY FULHAM XI (4-3-3): Rodak; Christie, Bryan, Odoi, Hector; McDonald, Onomah, Cairney; Decordova-Reid, Cavaleiro, Mitrovic.

MY PREDICTION: Fulham 2-0 Barnsley.

Opposition in focus – Millwall

Fulham will look to pile to on the pressure on the Championship’s top two when they make the short journey across London to take on Millwall at the Den tomorrow night.

The Lions looked to putting together another play-off push around the turn of the year, but just one win in five leaves them some five points off the top six. Gary Rowett, who has a history of surprising Fulham, was disappointed with Millwall’s display against league leaders West Brom on Sunday and has called for his side to put things right against Scott Parker’s outfit. They are usually a formidable outfit on their own turf, having lost just three times at home so far this season.

Fulham comfortably won the reverse fixture 4-0 at Craven Cottage back in August – dominating possession in one of their most complete performances of the campaign, but the Whites are unlikely to be given as much time on the ball as they had earlier in the season. The quality of the playing surface at the Den might make it difficult for Fulham to move the ball as swiftly as they might like, as it cut up horribly during Sunday’s clash with the after effects of Stom Ciara not having done it any faours.

Millwall might struggle to score goals – having managed to find the net just 38 times so far this season – but former Fulham striker Matt Smith will be keen to make a point against his old club. Rowett may consider switching to a back five to counter Fulham’s strengths by recalling Alex Pearce to his starting eleven. Millwall make a late decision on the fitness of midfielder Ryan Leonard, who came through a behind close doors friendly for the under 23s on Monday alongside Mason Bennett, who is also contention for a return from injury. The Whites will need to keep a close eye on Jed Wallace, who has scored ten goals so far this season as well as providing nine assists from the wing.

Parker may ponder a recall for the fit-again Anthony Knockaert, who was on the bench at Blackburn at the weekend. Harrison Reed and Maxime Le Marchand are still sidelined through injury whilst Alfie Mawson may miss the remainder of the season having undergone knee surgery last week. The Whites will travel to south east London in good heart, looking to extend their five-match unbeaten run, although they only taken a single point from their last seven league London derbies since winning 3-0 at Millwall in April 2018.

MY FULHAM XI (4-3-3): Rodak; Odoi, Bryan, Hector, Kongolo; McDonald, Cairney, Onomah; Cavaleiro, Decordova-Reid, Mitrovic.

MY PREDICTION: Millwall 0-1 Fulham.

Opposition in focus – Blackburn Rovers

This weekend sees Fulham make the trip north to face Tony Mowbray’s Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park.

A solid set of recent results see Rovers comfortably sat in 10th place and in with a serious shot of securing a play-off place, which might have been considered a surprise at the start of the season. Blackburn have been in brilliant form of late, losing just two of their last fourteen league games. They thrashed Sheffield Wednesday 5-0 in an eye-catching romp at Hillsborough. That result typified their free-scoring style, with Mowbray’s men having netted 43 goals in 30 league games – which is the second highest of anyone outside the top six. Former Newcastle forward Adam Armstrong has scored nine of them, whilst also laying on six assists.

Rovers’ recent run is all the more impressive given their lengthy injury list. The outstanding Bradley Dack, probably one of the most consistent creative midfielders in the Championship, is likely to miss most of 2020 after injuring his anterior cruciate ligament against Wigan back in December. Former Fulham midfielder Lewis Holtby will be missing as well after picking up a knee problem in last weekend’s draw at Middlesbrough. Six other first-teamers are definitely out of tomorrow’s game.

Rovers will be able to count on the services of impressive young right back Ryan Nyambe, who is forging a name for himself as one of the Championship’s brightest talents. The 22 year-old Namibian international has been on the radar of a whole host of top clubs, but Blackburn will be hoping he is willing to continue his encouraging development at Ewood Park as Mowbray looks to build a squad able to compete for promotion.

Fulham’s injury issues appear to be clearing up a little. Both Anthony Knockaert and Harrison Reed will have late fitness tests to see if they can play any part tomorrow, whilst Terence Kongolo could make his first league appearance for the Whites alongside a recalled Tim Ream at the heart of the defence. Fulham could record a first league double over Rovers since the famous one that put them on the brink of promotion from Division One in 2000-01, after goals from former Blackburn man Tom Cairney and Aleksandar Mitrovic secured a 2-0 success at Craven Cottage in August. Parker will want his side to stretch their impressive run of a single defeat in their last seven games, but the Fulham boss will know they will need to be far more disciplined than they were in last weekend’s win over Huddersfield to take home all three points.

MY FULHAM XI (4-3-3-): Rodak; Odoi, Hector, Kongolo, Bryan; McDonald, Cairney (c), Onomah; Decordova-Reid, Mitrovic, Cavaleiro.

My prediction: Blackburn Rovers 0-2 Fulham

Can Fulham sustain an automatic promotion push?

Before Christmas it seemed absurd to ask whether Scott Parker could mastermind an immediate return to the Premier League for Fulham through the automatic promotion positions, but a combination of the Whites’ fine winter form and wobbles from both West Brom and Leeds makes the idea far less fanciful these days. Fulham still seem a long way from their fluent best – even if the first half an hour against Huddersfield last weekend was arguably as close as they have come this season – but they are beginning to breathe down the necks of the Championship’s current top two.

Parker’s side are in the perfect position to hunt down West Brom and Leeds, who have led the way for much of the season. The Baggies still top the table but have not been pulling up any trees for much of January, whilst Leeds’ woes have been well documented in recent weeks. Fulham might be back in the automatic promotion positions as soon as February 15th if results go their way. Leeds, who have lost two of their last three games, have tricky away trips to high-flying Nottingham Forest and Brentford coming up, and it could be argued that Fulham are hitting their stride at just the right time.

The first team squad has been hit heavily by injuries this season, but there is a sense that key players are returning at just the right time. Aleksandar Mitrovic came back from his ankle ligament problem quicker than anticipated – marking the occasion with a goal against Huddersfield – and there’s no doubt that Fulham are far more threatening proposition with him in the side. Parker’s defence might also be even more miserly once he can regularly pair new loan signing Terence Kongolo with Michael Hector, who has enjoyed a great start to life at Craven Cottage.

The current optimism is distinctly different to how things looked before the visit of Leeds to capital on 21 December. Fulham were twelve points behind Marcelo Bielsa’s men then and looked in danger of slipping out of the play-off picture altogether. What has changed since then? Parker has highlighted his side’s ability to grind out results – with five wins coming by just a single goal over the last couple of months – but Fulham have also mixed things up. They were far more direct against Leeds than they had been in the preceding fixtures as there was a steely edge to their play in the narrow win at Hull City recently as well.

Character comes into it too. Many supporters lamented our second half lethargy against Huddersfield where the Terriers penned Fulham back for long periods and peppered the home goal with shots. Yes, the second half felt like a completely different contest to the one where Fulham were dominating proceedings and appeared able to score at well, but the Whites reacted well to adversity. Marek Rodak, who has been crucial in the recent upturn in form, made some sensational saves and the impressive Hector put his body on the line to prevent the visitors from completing a remarkable comeback.

down to the ability to be able to grind out results, and with five wins coming by just the one goal over the past two months, its hard to disagree with the Fulham manager. the recent capability to be able to gain three points where perhaps earlier in the season we might of only have held on one has been crucial in trying to get a spot back in the premier league. The best example of this has to be our 3-2 victory over Huddersfield Town, after conceding the second it seemed written in the stars that Huddersfield would go on and get there third, but brilliant displays from Rodak Hector McDonald and the whole team made sure we left the Cottage with 3 points instead of 1 and put us in prime position to break into the top two.

It is important not to get too far ahead of ourselves. Saturday’s opponents Blackburn Rovers, managed by the wily Tony Mowbray, are unbeaten in their last four and will prove obstinate opposition at Ewood Park. They absolutely demolished Sheffield Wednesday 5-0 and showed real spirit to withstand a barrage of late Middlesbrough pressure to claim a point at the Riverside last weekend. Hot on the heels of that trip to Lancashire will be a tasty derby against upwardly mobile Millwall and nobody should need reminding that Barnsley sprung a surprise on the opening day of the season at Oakwell.

Consistency is a precious commodity in a league as unpredictable as the Championship. Fulham have shown signs of being able to battle through and pick up precious results in the past few weeks – they now need to take advantage of the momentum that strong run has generated and pile even more pressure on the top two.