(Writer’s Note: This preview can be seen in a text-only format at STATS Hosted Solutions site. I am adding edits, projected starting lineups, odds-related picks and a final score prediction for the match in this blog.)
Back in the Premier League for the first time in five years, Fulham hope they have spent enough to not be a one-season wonder as they open play at Craven Cottage in a London derby against Crystal Palace on Saturday.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
It has been a three-year process to get here for the Cottagers (25-13-8 in 2017-18 Championship), whose fortunes turned after hiring Slavisa Jokanovic to avoid relegation to League One in 2015-16. Fulham finished sixth in 2016-17 and then third this past season. After edging Derby County in a two-legged tie to reach the playoff final, Fulham earned their Premier League spot with a 1-0 win over Aston Villa at Wembley Stadium on a goal by Tom Cairney.
With the deep pockets of owner Shahid Khan – who already owns the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars and is bidding to buy Wembley Stadium – Fulham have made the financial commitment to remain in the Premier League by spending approximately £100 million in transfers.
Their biggest offseason signing was acquiring striker Aleksander Mitrovic from Newcastle United for a reported £22 million – at the time a record for Fulham – after the Serbia international was a driving force in their run to promotion by scoring 12 goals in 17 matches after arriving on loan in January.
“We have obviously talked to Mitro since last season and he always wanted to come back here,” midfielder Stefan Johnson told Fulham’s official website regarding Mitrovic. “He knows the head coach well, he knows the players around him and he knows the club, so it’s a good match for him and for us obviously so I’m sure he will do big things.”
The Cottagers then broke that spending record right before the close of the window Thursday, agreeing on a reported £30 million transfer for Marseille midfielder and Cameroon international Andre Frank Zambo Anguissa. That further strengthens Fulham’s side as they had previously added central midfielder Jean Michael Seri from Nice and centre back Alfie Mawson from relegated Swansea City in deals believed to total £33 million.
The Cottagers also poached Bristol City left back Joe Bryan, who had undergone a physical to make a lateral move to Aston Villa in the Championship. Goalkeeper Sergio Rico, defender Calum Chambers and winger Andre Schurrle also are on Fulham via loans from Sevilla, Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund, respectively, and striker Luciano Vietto was a late loan arrival from Atletico Madrid.
Rico is expected to start the season deputising behind Fabri, who signed from Turkish side Besiktas and is the No. 1 since Marcus Bettinelli has been sidelined all preseason due to injury. Schurrle makes his return to the Premier League after scoring 11 goals in 44 league matches for Chelsea from 2013-15.
Behind Mitrovic up front, Fulham have one of England’s top young players in 18-year-old Ryan Sessegnon, who moves up to the wing in their 4-3-3 formation after playing left back last season and scoring a team-high 16 goals in all competitions to win EFL Player of the Year honours. Cairney is the team’s primary playmaker, having totaled 21 assists in all competitions in the last three seasons.
Thirteen kilometres to the southeast, Crystal Palace (11-11-16 in 2017-18 Premier League) are out to avoid a second straight disastrous start that would have relegated most teams. The Eagles set a dubious standard last term by becoming the first side in 129 years of English football to lose their first seven matches while failing to score in any of them.
They sacked Ronald de Boer after the first four defeats and called on Roy Hodgson to rescue his boyhood team. The former England manager did that and more, missing out on a top-half finish behind Newcastle United on goal difference as a return to a four-man back and simpler playing style proved more conducive to success.
For his efforts, the 71-year-old Hodgson was rewarded with a one-year contract extension through the 2019-20 season. This will be his 43rd season on the touchline overall as Palace seek a seventh straight season in the top flight starting with Saturday’s contest.
Repeating last season’s success, however, could prove challenging. Midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek is no longer with the side as the England international’s loan from Chelsea ended. Palace stayed true to their word they would not sell winger Wilfried Zaha, cognizant of the fact they lost all 10 league matches he did not play last term.
Luka Milivojevic, who led Palace with 10 goals last season – seven from the penalty spot – is the creative force of the midfield and will look for help from Zaha and Andros Townsend on the wings. Christian Benteke leads the line, looking to rebound from a dismal season in which he scored three goals in league play after bagging 15 in 2016-17.
“We have a lot of abilities through our team with a lot of players able to score, whether it be from free kicks or headers,” Benteke told his team’s official website. “(The season opener) is going to be big for both teams, they will be looking to show their fans that they are back and will be looking to win the game but we will also be going there looking to get maximum points.”
Palace’s two notable summer signings – defensive midfielder Cheikou Kouyate from West Ham United and Max Meyer from German side Schalke04 – will likely be available as reserves for Hodgson. The Eagles added striker Jordan Ayew on loan from relegated Swansea City ahead of the transfer deadline.
Fulham are 2-1-1 in Premier League matches versus Palace, taking four points in the most recent meetings in 2013-14. The Cottagers lead the all-time series 17-11, and there have been 15 draws.
Per Ladbrokes, Fulham are slight favourites at 29/20 odds, while Crystal Palace check in at 9/5. There are 9/4 odds on the teams splitting the points.
A potential parlay could be to play both teams scoring with a Fulham victory at 15/4 odds plus the over of 2.5 goals at 3/1 odds.
Mitrovic getting first goal-scorer odds at 4/1 feels like a fair play considering his 7/5 any-time odds, while new Fulham signing Vietto jumped into joint-second for first-goal honours at 11/2 with Zaha. At 2/1, Zaha also ranks ahead of Benteke (9/4) as Palace’s top any-time goal-scorer.
The buzz of top-flight football at Craven Cottage for the first time in five seasons is augmented by Fulham’s staggering aggressiveness in the summer window. The triumvirate of Mitrovic, Sessegnon and Cairney will hold much of the Cottagers’ hopes for success, and the sooner Sessegnon can transition to his wing role from left back, the better.
Palace will undoubtedly be a better team than it was at this time last year after Hodgson’ rescue job, but how they replace Loftus-Cheek’s industry in the middle will be pivotal. Benteke also has to get going quickly because even with Ayew’s addition, the options at striker will not put fear into the hearts of any defences.
Look for the new boys to start out on the right foot as Fulham make their return to the Premier League with a victory.
PREDICTION: FULHAM 2, CRYSTAL PALACE 1