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The first installment of a new column about everything English Championship by O-Posts mainstay and top football writer, Adam Gray. It will be up and going for the entirety of the 2016/17 campaign. Enjoy!
Rafa Benitez’s Newcastle present a daunting task for Fulham in the season opener on Friday night but after finishing off pre-season with an impressive 3-1 win over Crystal Palace, the Cottagers may be welcoming the fallen Premier League giants with a touch of optimism.
The London club are in need of stability after moving through three managers in the three years since Martin Jol departed and in Slavisa Jokanovic, who earned promotion from the Championship with Watford a year ago, they may be on the road to finding it.
Jokanovic targeted a top 6 finish back in May but after a summer of upheaval, desperately required following the stagnant regimes of Felix Magath and Kit Symons, that aim may have to be readjusted.
Plans have been disrupted by Ross McCormack’s move to Aston Villa and though the reported £12 million windfall for the striker would be a huge boost for the Londoners, it will be hard to replace the Scotsman’s 38 goals from across the last two seasons.
McCormack’s strike partner from last season Moussa Dembele, who netted 17 goals, has already been sold to Celtic.
That will leave Matt Smith, a battering ram of a centre-forward who has found goals hard to come by in west London, leading the attack against Newcastle alongside new signings Sone Aluko, who arrives on a free from Hull, and Floyd Ayite, who comes from Bastia for just under £2 million.
Both are direct and full of pace, and while the new-look trio have linked up well in pre-season- each bagging a goal in the friendly with Palace– the fact neither of them head into this campaign with a prolific goal-scoring record is an issue Jokanovic will have to solve.
The Serb could turn to the 21 year old Cauley Woodrow who has a promising potential from youth level, but found first-team appearances a rarity last term after initially breaking through under Magath.
A tough-tackling midfielder in his playing days, Jokanovic aimed to toughen Fulham up once he took charge back in January and with Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Kevin MacDonald added to a midfield that contains Scott Parker he now possesses a battle-hardened engine room that will seek to control matches.
Their combined experience will offer a buffer to the guile of Tom Cairney who will be allowed to roam free and create ahead of them while young talents Lasse Vigen Christensen and Sean Kavanagh will act as cover.
14 players exited Craven Cottage in the summer and Jokanovic will have to get his new-look squad to gel quickly if he is to get off to a bright start.
The likes of Michael Madl, coming in from Graz in Austria, and Denis Odoi, arriving from Lokeren in Belgium, will have to settle in quickly as the manager seeks to strengthen a defence that shipped 79 goals last season.
Tomas Kalas helped Middlesbrough to promotion last term and his loan signing from Chelsea is a huge coup, he will compete for a central-defensive spot with fellow imposing giants Richard Stearman and Tim Ream.
They will have to shackle Ayoze Perez and Aleksander Mitrovic, as well as new signings Dwight Gayle and Matt Richie, when Newcastle rock up on the banks of the River Thames for Friday’s curtain raiser.
Fulham vs Newcastle was a top-tier fixture not so long ago and the away side on Friday will be intent on making an immediate return to the riches of the Premier League as they begin this season.
If Jokanovic and Fulham can get a renovated squad firing quickly, holding off a mystery virus that ravaged the team’s preparations in pre-season, then those at Craven Cottage may be joining in with such lofty aspirations.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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