Ayite confident Fulham have the players to avenge last season’s Play-Off travails

This interview was conducted for Fulham Football Club’s official matchday programme for the game against Wolves on Saturday 24th February 2018.

 

A fit-again Floyd Ayité is looking to put this season’s injury frustrations behind him and aid Fulham’s promotion push…

This has been a difficult season for Floyd Ayité. Four separate injury problems this term have prevented him from enjoying a sustained run in the side, while the left-wing berth he has so often occupied since joining in the summer of 2016 has been taken by Ryan Sessegnon.

There’s no doubt the injuries have preyed on the 29-year-old’s mind, but he’s embracing the chance to come back stronger.

“I was frustrated,” he told the official matchday programme. “Every time I came back, two or three games later I was getting injured again.

“I worked with the staff to try and resolve all these physical issues, including changing the way I eat.

“I even went to see a specialist. He explained to me that I had a back problem causing an imbalance in my body and I was putting too much stress on my left calf and thigh. We’ve worked to realign the balance and avoid repetition of the problem.”

Nevertheless, he’s still only one goal shy of his tally at this point last season, with his long-range strike against Aston Villa a week ago the most eye-catching during his time in SW6.

“That’s the goal I scored from the furthest distance,” smiled Ayité. “It’s a pretty tough move to make. You can easily kick it outside on the right or on the left or above the bar, or just not hit it strongly enough. It was one of my favourite goals.

“I was very surprised to receive the ball. I quickly turned around and tried to control it as fast as I could, and there I glimpsed the empty goal at a distance. Then I remember concentrating to the maximum to hit it perfectly.”

The victory was a real statement of intent against a Villa side that had won seven league games on the spin, with the Whites recording their seventh consecutive Championship triumph at Craven Cottage in the process.

While Ayité is keen to guard against complacency, he believes Saturday’s win sends out an ominous message to their promotion rivals.

“It’s proof we can beat anyone in the Championship. As we’re about to play top teams, it’s important to know we have it in us. Against a team like Wolves, one just cannot afford to make mistakes.”

In becoming a professional footballer, Floyd followed in the footsteps of his uncle, Kodjo Afanou, who represented Bordeaux for ten years between 1996 and 2006, as well as picking up 12 caps for France U-21s.

Floyd’s older brother Jonathan also found his way into the pro game and is currently for Samsunspor in Turkey after spells at Nîmes and Brest. Their paths crossed at hometown club Bordeaux and international level, with both turning out for Togo at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations. Les Eperviers reached the Quarter-Finals, the only time the West African country has progressed beyond the group stages at the tournament.

The relationship between the siblings is clearly strong, despite the vast distance between their current club sides.

“My brother started one year before me,” said Ayité. “We were together at Bordeaux.

“I was younger so he helped me a lot. We were sharing the same apartment. He helped me every day and we shared everything, like brothers do. We get to advise, support and encourage each other throughout our careers.”

Despite success in France, a move to England was always on his radar. After transferring from Bastia in the summer of 2016, it’s clear he is relishing the opportunity.

“It was one of my career goals for me and my family,” he explained. “I like the culture, the country and the way we play football here in the UK.

“The atmosphere we get in the stadium is incredible. I chose Fulham because it’s a great and famous clubs.

“At the time, I saw the opportunity to be part of the great project of bringing the Club back to the top, I saw that Fulham was ready to invest to achieve its goals and I wanted to be part of that.”

Ayité immediately noticed the difference between the respective countries, but had prepared himself to the adjustment.

“It was good to arrive during pre-season to get accustomed to the new style of play and work conditions.

“The difference was both the higher physical intensity and the higher speed of play.

“The games go from one side to the other very quickly. Meanwhile France, without being more tactical, is not as intense on the pitch and in the stands.”

Ayité also believes there’s a contrast in style between managers across the Channel and those in the UK.

“The coaches don’t talk the same way in France. Those I worked with were not as close to the players,” he observed.

“With our current Head Coach, we see that we can be both serious and easy-going at the right time. He knows how to convey the right message and keep us focused in reaching our goals.”

Last season saw Ayité stationed predominantly on the left wing, but this term he has increasingly been deployed on the opposite flank or as a ‘false nine’.

The latter of these positions may not be ideal, but the form of Sessegnon and Matt Targett means that situation is unlikely to change anytime soon.

“Playing as a false nine isn’t my favourite position, but as long as I play as a forward, I’m happy,” said Ayité. “I give 100 per cent wherever I play, it’s that simple.

“In Bastia, we had a forward player who was unavailable for a long time. I had to replace him. Since then I’m considered a false nine, but I would prefer playing on the wings if it was down to me.”

After the last two transfer windows, the squad looks even stronger than last season and Ayité believes the new additions have taken the team to the next level.

“If the Club targeted them, they can bring something that was missing,” he remarked. “The team is stronger than ever with the value they bring to the group.

“On all sides of the pitch, we’ve built a team with very clear qualities. Their arrival was a great boost.”

Ayité’s first season as a professional for Bordeaux in 2008/09 saw him farmed out to Angers, as his parent club claimed the Ligue 1 title for the first time in 10 years. Understandably, he didn’t feel part of this success, but thinks this Fulham side is the best in which he has featured regularly.

“With Bordeaux, we were French champions with [Yoann] Gourcuff, [Marouane] Chamakh etc., but I didn’t really enjoy it as much as I could because I didn’t really play,” he admitted.

“With this Fulham squad, I get to play with high-quality players: any of them is Premier League-worthy. To me that’s beautiful and definitely the team with the most qualities in which I have played so far.”

Fulham’s visit to Molineux in November was dispiriting, as Wolverhampton Wanderers toyed with the Whites and emerged 2-0 winners. The Black Country side’s stylish brand of football has wowed spectators, while the likes of Rúben Neves and Diogo Jota look ready-made for the Premier League.

However, this Fulham team is a different beast to the one that was comprehensively outplayed on a cold Friday night three months ago and Ayité is confident there will not be a repeat outcome.

“We always learn from our defeats and mistakes,” he insisted. “The team is particularly confident and motivated at the moment.

“When we played them we’d lost a couple of games before that. It’s not going to be the same script this time.”

Wednesday’s battling draw with Bristol City saw Slaviša Jokanović’s men exhibit different qualities to the win against Villa, as the defence repelled a barrage of crosses and long balls into the box to help extend the unbeaten league run to 11 games.

Now eight points adrift of second place, hopes of automatic promotion look to be fading. Ayité, though, is positive about the trajectory the Club is taking.

“Arriving here, we set ourselves a clear objective to reach the Play-Offs. Attaining it in the first season was already a great memory,” he recalled.

“There are still a lot of games to come. We’re on the right path and as we work towards the same goal, I’m sure we’ll have a beautiful surprise at the end.”

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Roland Garros: Five men who could make the second week for the first time

With the second Grand Slam of the year about to begin, it seemed high time to look at some of the players who could break new ground at Roland Garros this year and possibly spring a few surprises along the way.

Alexander Zverev

Zverev

Zverev is in the form of his life and is destined to remain in the upper echelons of the game for many years to come. The rangy right-hander has enjoyed a breakthrough year on the Tour, but there were signs in 2016 that he would be one to watch, when he sewed the title in St. Petersburg last September, defeating Stan Wawrinka in the final over three sets.

Since then, the German has gone from strength to strength, adding three more titles to his collection, two of which came on clay. His ability to raise his game against the world’s elite has been astonishing and was underlined when he outclassed Novak Djokovic to pick his most recent crown in Rome.

Zverev will face a very stiff first-round test in the form of Spaniard Fernando Verdasco, but the 20-year-old has already shown on a number of occasions that he can overcome adversity.

Grigor Dimitrov

Dimitrov

Many who watched Dimitrov blitz Andy Murray in a clinical Wimbledon quarter-final performance in 2014 would have expected the Bulgarian to push on. It hasn’t quite transpired like that, but the 26-year-old is displaying his swashbuckling brand of tennis on a far more regular basis in 2017.

The recruitment of coach Dani Vallverdu, formerly part of Murray’s coaching set-up, was a major coup and the intensive work that took place in the off-season in Monte Carlo has paid dividends. Impressive victories over Dominic Thiem, Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori led the former junior champion at the All England Club to the title in Brisbane and this was backed up with a memorable victory in Sofia.

His first encounter during the fortnight will be against the experienced Frenchman Stephane Robert. Time will tell if Dimitrov can break his Grand Slam final duck.

Lucas Pouille

Lucas Pouille

Pouille was not on many people’s radar heading into last year and his name would have drawn shrugs from many regular observers of the sport. However, that all changed in 2016, when the 23-year-old reached two Tour finals and two consecutive Grand Slam quarter-finals, at Wimbledon and the US Open, which included a sensational win over Rafael Nadal in the latter competition.

His sole title triumph this year was on clay in Budapest, where he convincingly crushed Briton Aljaz Bedene. At 6′ 1” he is not one of the tallest men on the circuit, but the Dubai resident compensates for that deficiency with a strong defensive game and a searing two-handed backhand.

Pouille’s first assignment at his home Major is against compatriot Julien Benneteau, a team-mate in France’s Davis Cup team. Given his remarkable recent improvement, bettering last year’s third-round performance at Roland Garros seems highly likely.

Nick Kyrgios

Kyrgios

Kyrgios has been beset by plenty of controversies in his fledgling career, but the 22-year-old has certainly matured recently and his scintillating brand of tennis can trouble any player in the world.

The Australian shot to prominence at Wimbledon three years ago, with an all-action display that shocked Nadal and those in attendance at SW19. His explosive groundstrokes, excellent balance and soft hands make him an exciting player to watch and last year saw him develop greater consistency with titles in Marseille, Atlanta and Tokyo. 2017 has not been as successful trophies-wise, but Kyrgios has claimed two notable scalps over Novak Djokovic.

The Canberra-born player’s first test will be against the elegant Philipp Kohlschreiber, who could push his young opponent all the way. A potentially intriguing duel.

Pablo Carreno Busta

Pablo Carreno Busta

One of a seemingly endless number of Spaniards to roll off the production line, Carreno Busta has taken a little longer to bloom than some of his fellow countrymen. However, his game has come in massively in the last year and he is currently nestled just outside the top 20.

The 25-year-old can generate a lot of power off both wings and is not afraid to come in and dispatch the loose ball when necessary, with his delicate touch at the net an indication of his extensive doubles experience. Last year saw him pick up his first ATP Tour titles, in Winston-Salem and Moscow. The Gijon-born player then captured his first clay court title in Estoril just three weeks ago.

Carreno Busta faces German Florian Mayer in round one, with a potential third-round match-up against Dimitrov on the horizon.

Featured image: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images Europe

Images (from top to bottom): Matthew Lewis/Getty Images Europe, Shaun Botterill/Getty Images Europe, Andy Lyons/Getty Images, Julian Finney/Getty Images, Kena Betancur/AFP

France look to make home soil count

For those still grieving the end of an incredible Premier League season, relief is imminent. Euro 2016 begins on Friday, and marks the start of a month of international football.

For the first time the competition has expanded from 16 teams to 24, creating more groups, fixtures and an additional knockout round. But who will emerge from this as the European Champions?

My personal favourites are France. They are hosting the tournament, and according to history, their national team always thrive on home support. The 1984 Euros and the 1998 World Cup, both of which were held in France, were also won by Les Bleus. In addition, the French team now boast a whole host of exciting young players looking to make their mark on the international stage. Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial have all had excellent seasons for their respective clubs and will look to do the same for their country. The team as a whole look innovative and fast-paced, and with the crowds behind them, they will do well.

Germany as always will have a great chance. Many of the key players from the 2014 World Cup victory remain, and Thomas Muller is still in great goalscoring form. However, doubts have been raised over the Germans’ form, with recent losses over the Republic of Ireland and Slovakia. Die Mannschaft will be the ones to beat at the tournament, but these defeats will give other teams confidence.

In the year of the underdog, there are also a number of dark horses who could become surprise champions. After all, Greece shocked everyone to beat Portugal in the Euro 2004 final. Austria may not be able to take it this far, but they could surprise. The team were dominant in their qualifying group and feature league winning players such as Bayern’s David Alaba and Leicester’s Christian Fuchs. The group draw was also favourable for them, with Iceland, Hungary and Portugal making up the rest of Group F, making progress likely.

Croatia could also impress, with many of their key players plying their trade at the world’s best clubs. Ivan Rakitic of Barcelona, Luka Modric of Madrid, Mario Mandzukic of Juventus and Ivan Perisic of Inter Milan are all in excellent form and this could propel Croatia far into the knockout round. However first they must negotiate a tricky group stage featuring Spain, Czech Republic and Turkey.

Finally Wales could potentially impress in their first major international tournament in 58 years after a strong qualifying campaign, finishing two points behind Belgium. Gareth Bale can have an instrumental role in Wales’s progress and can finally make a mark on the international stage. The Welsh defence should also be solid, with only four goals conceded throughout qualification. Controversial though this may be, Wales have a good chance at beating England in their group game.

Moving on to England. Once again the Three Lions go into an international tournament surrounded by subdued expectation. This is Hodgson’s third international tournament and it finally feels like this is his team; a move away from the ‘‘golden generation’’ of English football, with only Wayne Rooney remaining from those disappointing days. Fans will look at the sharp attacking edge of this England team and feel hopeful. Kane and Vardy were the first and third top scorers in the Premier League this season, and with the youthful, creative Dele Alli and the experienced Wayne Rooney playing in behind them, goals can be expected. However, it will be at the other end of the pitch that will cause concern. England’s defence looks shaky, with the back four hardly inspiring confidence. England should get through the group stage and past the last-16, but will fall foul to more clinical opposition in the quarter-finals.

What is guaranteed is a month of drama, excitement and goals galore. Euro 2016 kicks off this Friday with France v Romania at 8pm on ITV1.

Nancy Gillen

Featured image: Alexis Boichard/Agence Zoom/Getty Images Europe