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FLP Focus – Be wary of Fulham in the race for the play-offs

By John Lyons

THERE´S often a team that comes with a late run to make the play-offs – and Fulham could be the ones to do just that in the Championship.

The top six – Newcastle, Brighton, Huddersfield, Leeds, Reading and Sheffield Wednesday – have been sitting pretty in recent weeks, but the seventh-placed Whites are the team best placed to challenge them for post-season action.

Ahead of yesterday’s stern test at table-topping Newcastle United, Slavisa Jokanovic’s men were five points behind Sheffield Wednesday, the team in the final play-off berth, seven away from Reading and eight behind Leeds, with a game in hand on all three.

The football purists will be hoping Fulham can achieve a top-six finish as they have become one of the division’s most entertaining teams under Jokanovic.

Perhaps one of the reasons why they are so pleasing on the eye is the number of left-footers they possess.

Against Leeds, half of the outfield starters were lefties – Tim Ream, Scott Malone, Sone Aluko, Tom Cairney and Stefan Johansen. There is a certain stylishness to their game – and a goal threat.

Pre-weekend, only Newcastle (69) and Norwich (61) had scored more goals than the Craven Cottage side, who shared third place in that particular chart with Brighton (60).

And, while Fulham are always likely to concede a goal – they had let in 41 pre-weekend, more than all the current top six, bar Reading (46) – they have tightened up compared to last season when they conceded a whopping 79 in their 46 games and finished 20th.

New deal: Fulham continue to improve under Serbian manager Slavisa Jokanovic after a lengthy adjustment period to life in the Championship (photo: Action Images via Reuters / Matthew Childs)

The fact the Londoners are so exciting to watch is in large part down to Jokanovic and the club’s clever recruitment.

Many pundits wondered where the goals would come from after they lost prolific duo Ross McCormack to Aston Villa and Moussa Dembele to Celtic last summer.

Fulham haven’t got the division’s leading scorers this term, but they have a number of different weapons at their disposal.

It is a team set up to attack, as shown in last Tuesday night’s pulsating 1-1 draw against Leeds United at the Cottage. Both full-backs, Ryan Fredericks and Malone on this occasion, like to push forward.

In midfield, Kevin McDonald tends to sit and allow the talented Johansen and Cairney to use their creative skills. These two are at the heart of Fulham’s best work, passing and probing all the while.

Norwegian Johansen, 26, is a pleasure to watch, while former Blackburn midfielder Cairney, also 26, has grown in stature over the last couple of years.

The skipper’s stunning last-gasp equaliser against Leeds – a powered, curling left foot shot into the top corner that left former England goslkeeper Rob Green grasping thin air – was simply sensational and showed he is the man for the big occasion.

Vitally, it also helped Fulham to maintain their momentum, extending their unbeaten league run to six games and making it 14 points from 18.

Target man Chris Martin was not at his best against the Yorkshire side, but he’s a proven Championship scorer who can also bring others into play.

Either side of him are two rapid wingers in Aluko and Neeskens Kebano who have been given the freedom to bamboozle their markers and create mayhem.

Against Leeds, French-born DR Congo international Kebano, who turned 25 on Friday, was a real livewire. He was desperately unlucky when his thunderbolt of a shot in the first half appeared to have crossed the line but a goal wasn’t given.

Garry Monk’s Leeds – admittedly without injured top scorer Chris Wood – arrived in south-west London and had to weather a storm to earn a valuable point. It would have been a travesty if Fulham had come away empty handed and the statistics back that up.

They had a remarkable 73 per cent possession, 23 shots, five on target and 14 corners. Leeds had seven shots, two on target, and four corners.

Fulham produced wave after wave of attacks after centre-back Ream’s horrendous fifth-minute own goal gave the visitors something to hang on to.

Crowd-pleaser: Tom Cairney sends the Fulham fans wild after his late, late equaliser against Leeds United (photo: Action Images / Tony O’Brien

The late equaliser left Monk with mixed emotions, though he did praise his side for sticking to their game plan and saluted Fulham, too.

“I was very proud of that performance,” said the former Swansea boss. “We were playing against a good side that have been free-scoring here at this stadium.

“It feels a little bit like a sucker punch because of the way it came right at the very end but that’s football.

“Ultimately, it’s a very good point against a very good side.”

Fulham boss Jokanovic said: “I’m really proud of how my team played. We put all the football on the pitch, we moved the ball from one side to the other, we created many chances. I believe my team deserved three points.

“Tom Cairney scored a fantastic goal. He is a very important player for us and probably one of the best in the competition.”

The 48-year-old Serbian believes there is plenty of time for his side to mount a play-off bid in the closing months of the season.

“There are many games in front of us,” said the ex-Watford manager. “I believe we play with confidence, we play with our style, we move the ball, we created many chances (against Leeds).

“My team believe they can play very good football. We scored two (with the Kebano ‘goal’), we needed to score three to win the game, but it’s important for confidence we carry on and push hard to be in the top six.”

And the former Chelsea midfielder made it clear that being known as a team that plays good football isn’t high on his list of priorities.

“It’s not a question about entertaining football,” he said. “We believe this is the best way for us to win the game. I don’t want to have possession of the ball for nothing. Our possession generally serves us for to shoot.

“We are one of the teams who shoots most in the Championship. This is the reason why we want to play this kind of game.”

On paper at least, Fulham’s run-in doesn’t look the most difficult.

Home games against Blackburn (on Tuesday night), Wolves, Ipswich, Aston Villa and Brentford all offer good opportunities for points, while their next three away trips – Rotherham, Derby and Norwich – don’t look formidable.

A lot could depend on their final two away matches: Huddersfield Town on April 22 and then, on the final day of the season, May 7, Sheffield Wednesday.

That Hillsborough clash between the Owls’ galaxy of forward power and Fulham’s entertainers could be something special – and crucial for both sides.

*This article originally featured in The FLP’s 12 March 2017 edition.

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