Paul Heckingbottom’s Barnsley side will look to avenge last month’s narrow defeat by Fulham on Saturday afternoon, as we prepare to host Slavisa Jokanovic’s promotion-hunting outfit at Oakwell.
The Reds will be looking also to turn their fortunes around after last weekend’s 3-1 setback at Aston Villa, our first league defeat in five.
Fulham are the Sky Bet Championship’s form team. The south-west London side have taken the busy winter schedule in their stride, with December’s reverse fixture at Craven Cottage starting a run of six unbeaten in the league, winning five including a 6-0 trouncing of Burton Albion in their last outing.
A win for the Reds could see them leapfrog Reading and increase the gap from the drop zone, whilst Fulham will be looking to extend their tremendous recent streak and move into the play-off places.
Fulham have competed in the second tier since 2014, when their relegation from the Premier League ended a 13-year top-flight stay.
During that time, the Cottagers peaked as high as seventh in Roy Hodgson’s spell in charge, a year after he led them to a ‘great escape’ from relegation and subsequently qualified for the Europe. The 2009/10 season saw Hodgson and Fulham embark on an historic Europa League run, reaching the final in Hamburg where they were narrowly pipped by Atletico Madrid after extra-time. The team claimed the scalp of elite giants Juventus on the way, after coming from two goals down to win 5-4 on aggregate, one of Craven Cottage’s most famous nights.
Since plying their trade in the Championship, Fulham somewhat struggled initially with 17th and 20th-placed finishes in their first two seasons. In Jokanovic’s first full season at the helm in 2016/17, the club achieved his target of a top six finish, beaten by Reading in their play-off semi-final.
Jokanovic’s clear aim for Fulham this year is to achieve at least another crack at the play-offs, with his squad looking in better shape than ever to look ahead to the next level.
Fulham’s cup record has not quite matched their league form – beaten 1-0 at home in both domestic competitions – by Bristol Rovers in the Carabao Cup second round, and in the third round of the Emirates FA Cup by Southampton earlier this month.
Jokanovic likes to play an attacking style of football, tending to opt for a 4-3-3 setup with plenty of lively talent going forward.
A tall, powerful defence provide excellent cover for one of two competing goalkeepers. Their three-man midfield transition from defence to attack very efficiently, and spray the ball out to their dangerous wide men. The midfield and wide players contribute equally as effectively on the goal front, with a variety of talented athletes at the manager’s disposal.
Fulham’s play-off push is helped in large by their remarkable young squad. Before the 30th birthday of American centre-half Tim Ream in October, the entire Fulham squad were in their twenties or teens. This leaves plenty of potential for Jokanovic and his coaching staff to work with.
Between the sticks, the hand has changed during the course of the campaign. With former Tottenham man David Button previously starting league matches, the number one spot was claimed by Marcus Bettinelli in December, with the 25-year-old in contention for his ninth league start on the bounce.
The back four for the Cottagers sees the bulky centre-back pairing of senior pro Ream and Tomas Kalas, on loan from neighbours Chelsea, complement the natural width of full-backs Ryan Fredericks and Denis Odoi. Whilst Fulham rely heavily on this defensive line-up, they have recently recruited left-back Matt Targett on loan from Southampton, who is in line for a debut, and boast a further option in Portuguese defender Rafa.
In midfield, Jokanovic likes to set up with a bank of three. Skipper Tom Cairney is back in the first-team fold after a short time on the sidelines, and box-to-box central lynchpin Oliver Norwood has plenty of Championship experience. Norwegian Stefan Johansen has put in a series of good displays with an eye for goal, with Kevin McDonald and Neeskens Kebano reliable performers this campaign, and the likes of Lucas Piazon can drop back to provide another option. Sheyi Ojo and Togo international Floyd Ayite were very impressive last month against the Reds, with on-loan Liverpool youngster Ojo netting the winner.
Up top, Fulham use plenty of width with a three-man front line. Undoubtedly the one to watch for Saturday’s visitors is 17-year-old Sessegnon. The wide man, who can also operate at left-back much in the mould of a young Gareth Bale, tends to favour the left-hand side. He tops Fulham’s scoring charts with nine in the league so far, and was the first Championship scorer born in 2000 when he netted against Cardiff in August 2016. On the right could be one of their versatile wide midfielders or the man they call ‘AK47’, Aboubakar Kamara. Alternatively, Brazilian Piazon could push for another start on the right, with former Arsenal striker Rui Fonte likely to lead the line at Oakwell after his two goals last weekend.
In The Dugout
Slavisa Jokanovic has been the Fulham manager since December 2015. After avoiding relegation by 11 points following his appointment, the 49-year-old Serbian achieved the play-offs in his first full season, gleaming his reputation among the fans at Craven Cottage.
His playing career ran from 1986 to 2004, representing clubs such as Chelsea, Deportivo and Tenerife as an engine room midfield man. Jokanovic’s first managerial job began in 2007 in his homeland at Partizan Belgrade, where he remarkably won two consecutive Serbian domestic doubles.
A spell in Thailand with Muangthong United saw him win the Thai Premier League in 2012, and the highly-rated head coach also achieved promotion to the Premier League with Watford in 2015, indicating his pedigree at this level.
Spanish coaches Javier Pereira and Alberto Escobar join Jokanovic in the dugout, alongside former Reds midfielder of the 1980s, Stuart Gray.
Overall, Barnsley have won 31 of 79 matches between the two, with Fulham winning 25. The Reds have not beaten Fulham since a 1-0 victory at Oakwell in 2000, providing an additional incentive for three points this weekend.