Action Images via Reuters/Adam Holt
15:00 BST, Saturday 11th August, Craven Cottage (London, England)
After battling their way through the Championship play-offs last May, the Cottagers are once more in English football’s elite division. A four-year absence separates them from their last venture in the top tier, in which time they’ve rebuilt and come back under new ownership.
While this was something achieved with relatively little expense, this has drastically changed this summer. Slavisa Jokanovic’s side have recruited heavily in recent weeks — the first promoted club to spend over £100 million — to smooth their transition, but now need to show they’re the sum of their new parts.
Crystal Palace are one club well aware of the dangers which come with overhauling too much, too fast. Last summer they attempted to change the way they played, and the results were less than impressive.
Roy Hodgson’s back-to-basics approach reaped rich dividends. Now with four key signings joining their squad and Wilfried Zaha still gracing Selhurst Park every other week, Palace are expected to improve steadily this season. Part of that remit will be for them to beat their surrounding opponents, including the newly promoted clubs.
Last Time Out
Fulham 2-2 Celta Vigo (Friendly)
An entertaining clash showed plenty of attacking intent to provide real hope for Fulham’s upcoming season. But while there was more positives than negatives which sprung forth from this match for the Cottagers, their defence looked one particular area of concern.
The centre backs looked unsure at times, especially from high balls sent into the box, meaning Jokanovic still has plenty of work to cover on the training ground.
Action Images via Reuters/Andrew CouldridgeFulham twice took the lead, first from Aleksandar Mitrovic, who was returning to the team just days after sealing a permanent move to South London. The Serbian striker then assisted his side’s second for Aboubakar Kamara to finish after he had held the ball up in attack.
The game predictably dwindled during the final half hour, but there was enough to both encourage and educate Jokanovic as to what he has to work with.
Crystal Palace 4-1 Toulouse (Friendly)
The Eagles surged back from a one-goal deficit to claim a fourth win from their five pre-season fixtures this summer.
Toulouse punished the Eagles' slow start in the tenth minute, as they failed to react to a rebounding ball and the Ligue 1 side took an early lead. The Londoners quickly found their rhythm and strikes from Christian Benteke and Jeffrey Schlupp reversed the scoreline as the Eagles went into the break firmly in control of the game.
Action Images via Reuters/Adam HoltThey continued as the dominant force after the interval and further goals from Luka Milivojevic and then Zaha added some gloss to their result.
While it’s hard to read too much into either the victory or the impressive result — as is the case for friendlies — the accuracy and ruthlessness shown by the Eagles' forwards would have more than pleased their manager.
With Vicente Guaita looking solid but largely untested at the other end of the pitch, the final signs were good for Palace as they concluded their summer schedule.
New goalkeeper Sergio Rico could well find himself keeping goal for the Cottagers on Saturday, despite fellow new recruit Fabri having played the majority of games during pre-season.
Outfield, Jokanovic has plenty of formational options, with only Alfie Mawson (knee) missing out this weekend through injury.
Calum Chambers and Timothy Fosu-Mensah could start either side of Tim Ream in defence, along with Maxime Le Marchand who can play as a left-back in addition to his more usual role in the centre of defence. Joe Bryan — a new addition from Bristol City — is also a candidate.
New club record signing Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa could make his debut, but signing only two days before kick off will hinder his chances.
There are plenty more options further up the field, but the forwards who featured in pre-season are the most likely to begin in this match as Jokanovic looks to build some understanding on the pitch.
Crystal Palace Lineup
The Eagles too are likely to have a new goalkeeper on the pitch, with both Cheikhou Kouyate and Jordan Ayew also expected to feature from the start.
Max Meyer may have to wait slightly longer before making his Premier League debut, while Zaha could return to his preferred left wing position and Aaron Wan-Bissaka could push into the starting XI ahead of Joel Ward at right-back.
Key Battle: Ryan Sessegnon (Fulham) vs Wilfried Zaha (Crystal Palace)
The loss of Ryan Fredericks to West Ham would have been a huge blow to Jokanovic’s planning for this season, but by keeping Ryan Sessegnon at the club they have kept their most valuable asset.
The left-footed 18-year-old is fully expected to be deployed high up the pitch to make best use of his pace and end product ,which has grown into his game. Despite his history as a left back, Sessegnon scored 15 league goals and was involved in every goal Fulham scored during the play-offs.
Action Images via Reuters/John SibleyBut while Fulham have a left-winger who has an abundance of promise, Crystal Palace have a left-winger who is already achieving. The Eagles failed to win a single league game without Zaha on the pitch last season and his retention is also something his club’s fans will be deeply celebrating.
While he may not match his return of nine goals from a wider position in the team, he is likely to eclipse the seven assists he made and will be a tricky problem for Fulham’s right-back to subdue on Saturday.
Backed for success
With five final signings sneaked in through the crack of Thursday evening’s transfer window, Jokanovic will now feel he has a good hand to work with for the season ahead.
The London side have spent over £100 million this summer, bringing in eleven new players for the challenge that lies in wait. This includes two goalkeepers, three centre backs and two centre forwards.
Action Images via Reuters/John SibleyWith new options in most positions, Jokanovic now has the task of creating a solid and cohesive unit.
Having been backed financially by the American businessman looking to buy Wembley, Shad Khan, the Serbian manager will have little excuse if his new team now fails to deliver.
Whether he receives further backing if these investments sour and the Cottagers begin to struggle is something that remains to be seen.
A make-or-break season
Christian Benteke is a forward who has never quite fulfilled his potential. Since his meteoric rise in English football with Aston Villa, he failed to look comfortable in a Liverpool shirt before a £27 million deal took him to South London.
While he scored an impressive 15 goals during his first season in Croydon, three goals from 30 league appearances highlighted his struggles in the team, compounded by a series of penalty misses.
REUTERS/Fabian BimmerDespite this poor return, his efforts and all-round work for the team were often hard to fault. With a goal in each of his two pre-season fixtures, the big Belgian striker is looking sharp ahead of the big kick-off.
This is a season in which the 27-year-old will most certainly be judged by the number of goals he scores, as two other strikers wait in the wings for their chance should he fail.
Prediction: Fulham 1-3 Crystal Palace
Fulham only lost twice in their 23 home league games last season, but Craven Cottage will need to become a fortress once more if they’re to settle into their new surroundings.
With so many new arrivals in the dressing room, it could take time for them to find their rhythm and Hodgson is likely to have his players well-drilled in his tactics.
Fulham’s weak-point is their defence, and the Eagles could prosper away from home in this opening weekend fixture.
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