Pride Park has consistently proven an unhappy venue for Fulham in their stay in the Championship: three previous appearances have resulted in three losses for the Whites. Each previous matchup at the home of the Rams has resulted in a crucial match that would either set the tone for the season or mark a turning point; this weekend’s match is no different.
In 2014, just four matches into Fulham’s first second-flight season in a decade, the Cottagers were throttled 5-1: a dreary season would follow.
On Boxing Day 2015, Fulham fell to a limp 2-0 loss that left them just three points off the relegation zone. It had been more than a month since Kit Symons was sacked; leaderless, the season was careening out of control. Two days later, Slavisa Jokanovic was announced as manager, ushering in a new era at Craven Cottage.
In April 2017, a horror show of David Button mistakes gifted Derby a 4-2 victory, ruining Fulham’s chance to take a place in the top six. Jokanovic realized a change needed to made, and in came Marcus Bettinelli, leading to Fulham’s late run into the play-offs.
And this time around, Saturday’s fixture between Derby and Fulham takes on more significance than ever before. For much of Fulham’s spell in the Championship, the Whites have been playing catch-up to the Rams, with Derby challenging for promotion while Fulham battle for survival. Last year, both teams were in the top 9, but neither occupied the play-off places.
Yet this edition of the matchup pits 4th vs 5th in the Championship- a true heavyweight battle of two sides who possess the quality to achieve promotion. The spoils were shared in the November matchup, a 1-1 draw in SW6 where Oliver Norwood’s smashed free kick was cancelled out early in the second half by the Rams.
For Derby, this is the worst possible time to face Fulham. The Whites are the most in-form in the division, boasting a 13-match unbeaten run with wins over the likes of Wolves, Aston Villa, Cardiff, and Middlesbrough.
Teenage sensation Ryan Sessegnon is going from strength from strength; fresh off crucial goals against Villa and Wolves, the 17-year-old bagged two accolades at the London Football Awards. Few have ever seen a player with such a natural ability for finishing, and at Sessegnon’s tender age, the sky truly is the limit. His meteoric rise defies belief.
Coupled with the outstanding form of defensive rock Tim Ream, Bettinelli’s knack for keeping clean sheets in big matches, and the return to form for the integral midfield three of Tom Cairney, Stefan Johansen, and Kevin McDonald, few would bet against Fulham to continue their remarkable run against Derby.
2018 has not been a kind year for the Rams, in stark contrast to Fulham’s fortunes. Derby have won just two out of a possible seven in the new year, suffering a shock loss to lowly Sheffield Wednesday, as well as disappointing draws with Norwich and Reading.
Yet to underestimate the Rams would be a mistake. They are 4th for a reason, buoyed by Championship top-scorer Matej Vydra, who could return from injury on Saturday. The core of the squad oozes experience and class, featuring Scott Carson, Curtis Davies, Richard Keogh, Tom Huddlestone, and Joe Ledley. And of course, Fulham will have to win at Pride Park, a feat the Cottagers haven’t managed in 16 years.
Jokanovic is expected to maintain the same starting XI that produced impressive 2-0 wins over both Villa and Wolves, and he recognizes the threat posed by Derby.
“We must be focused, concentrate and show ambition to win the game,” Jokanovic told fulhamfc.com.
Fulham have shown their quality when faced with the biggest challenges this year. Saturday is yet another massive fixture in their push for promotion; a fascinating match between two strong sides awaits.