Slavisa Jokanovic heralds "different ambience" of new-look Fulham after Matt Smith header earns 1-0 victory over Newcastle in Championship opener

 
Joe Hall
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Fulham v Newcastle United - Sky Bet Championship
Matt Smith's first half goal was enough to earn all three points (Source: Getty)

Fulham shrugged off the departure of Ross McCormack in spectacular style by beating Championship favourites Newcastle 1-0 in the season curtain raiser at Craven Cottage.

Matt Smith's header from a corner moments before half time was enough to give a new-look Fulham cause for optimism ahead of the new season, while Rafael Benitez's Newcastle will be left to reflect on the size of the task ahead as they look to negotiate an immediate return to the Premier League.

Fulham manager Slavisa Jokanovic heralded the renewed spirit in his side but warned the team remains in need of further additions if it is to sustain the success over the season.

"I believe we are more of a football team now than what we were before," he said. "But we need to sign four or five players more for the whole season.

"We played with energy, with the right mentality. We played like a team. There was a different ambience out there."

Read more: Why you should be paying attention to the Championship this season

Although a frenzied Friday night of football left smiles on Fulham faces, you could have forgiven both sets of fans for approaching the game with a wearied sense of trepidation.

After all, it’s barely been three months since the two clubs put to rest their worst seasons in a decade.

Fulham’s preparations have been disrupted by the sale of the last two seasons’ top scorer and talisman McCormack, who secured a high profile £12m move to league rivals Aston Villa earlier this week, while the spectre of an absent Moussa Sissoko hung over Newcastle.

But, as nearly every fan in the ground will have told you, “this is the Championship, and anything can happen”.

That excitement amongst home fans was further fuelled by the sense of renewal provided by a refreshed team.

Ahead of the game Jokanovic had promised fans they would see “the start of a new project”, pledging that the “fresh blood” — all of eight his summer signings were named in the starting 11 — could re-energise Craven Cottage following two stolid seasons of finishing closer to the relegation zone than the play-offs.

His side started the game and their season as if they had been given express instructions to do just that.

Spurred on by Leicester-style clappers conducting a marching beat in the crowd, the home side set out to attack, undaunted by the pedigree of their opponents.

Left winger Floyd Ayite, signed from Bastia this summer, was particularly purposeful and probing. Yet it was a seemingly dazed Newcastle right-back Daryl Janmaat who nearly provided Fulham with a golden chance top open the scoring after 25 minutes when his misplaced back-pass was almost seized upon in time to draw penalty-inducing contact by fellow debutant Sone Aluko.

Newcastle had a more persuasive penalty claim of their own 10 minutes later when Matt Ritchie – a £12m summer signing from Bournemouth – reached the byline and fired a cross which was blocked by Ryan Tunnicliffe’s hand.

Aluko then forced new Newcastle keeper Matz Sels into an awkward save with the game’s first shot on target after 40 minutes.

Read more: Five Championship players to keep an eye out for this season

That looked to be the last meaningful attempt at goal in a game full of intent but lacking in fluid penetration.

Yet if Newcastle are to learn one lesson about life in the Championship from today it could be that, for all its qualities, it’s a league that does not always reward smooth link-up play.

Fulham went into the half-time with the lead thanks to the simple but clinical execution of a corner. Tom Cairney’s in-swinging cross from the right was delivered with pinpoint accuracy to the towering Smith who nodded out of Sels’ range.

Newcastle, as was to be expected, emerged for the second half with a serious response. Attacking into the massed regiments of travelling fans in the Putney End, the Magpies forced David Button into his first save of the match after 53 minutes when Matt Ritchie fired straight at him after connecting with Vernon Anita’s drilled pass through the Fulham box.

Ritchie again called Button into action shortly after the hour mark, but sent his effort directly at the keeper for a second time.

Substitute Rolando Aarons, Benitez's first port of call from the bench after the hour mark, should have smashed home minutes later after latching onto a loose ball in the box but missed the ball altogether with a wild air kick.

Newcastle continued to press for the remaining 20 minutes yet Fulham, thanks to the pace of Ayite, Aluko and new right-back and immediate fans' favourite Denis Odoi, looked just as likely to double their lead.

Left-back Scott Malone fired narrowly wide after bursting forward with a neat one-two with Aluko, while Christensen – set up by Odoi – scooped over with four minutes remaining.

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