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Serious Slav keen to have the last laugh in Championship promotion race

When Slavisa Jokanovic walked in for his post-match press conference last Tuesday, you would have been hard pressed to know if his Fulham team had won or lost.

That they had triumphed 1-0 against a determined Reading side to climb to second in the Championship hardly seemed to matter.

Quips, quotes, one-liners? Forget it. Leave that to the likes of Cardiff boss Neil Warnock and QPR manager Ian Holloway.

That the 49-year-old Serb isn’t speaking in his native tongue is no doubt one of the factors. His press conference answers are punctuated by lots of ums and errs, and you have to listen closely to make out what he is saying in sometimes faltering English.

Yet you wonder if the former Chelsea midfielder, who led Watford to promotion to the Premier League in 2014-15, is the life and soul of the party when he is speaking in Serbian. He seems a somewhat serious figure. You can’t imagine him joking around with compatriot, and Newcastle loanee, Aleksandar Mitrovic on the training ground.

And yet his Fulham team play with wonderful expression on the field. They are a joy to watch as they sweep forward at pace.

When they start to pass the ball about sweetly one and two-touch, they can cut through a defence like a knife through butter.

So, although listening to Jokanovic at times mutter and mumble his way through press conferences isn’t a lot of fun, watching his team play certainly is.

Results also show he is doing something right. After a slow start this season, following the disappointment of play-off semi-final defeat against Reading last term, the Whites made it 20 games unbeaten – 16 wins and four draws – by beating the Royals, courtesy of Stefan Johansen’s 25th-minute goal at Craven Cottage on Tuesday.

They increased that record to 21 games on Saturday against Brentford, though there was a bitter pill to swallow as the Bees struck at the death to earn a 1-1 draw.

It was a big blow for Fulham but they still have lots going for them.
Skipper Tom Cairney and Norwegian Johansen are two classy midfielders who can control operations and get Fulham playing their easy-on-the-eye game.

The Whites make the pitch big, switch the ball from flank to flank swiftly and attack rapidly.

There is also plenty of emphasis on the full-backs, Ryan Fredericks and Matt Targett, getting forward at every opportunity. Fredericks really bombs on from right-back, while Targett has been a revelation since joining on loan from Southampton in January.

The 22-year-old left-back linked up well with teenage winger Ryan Sessegnon against Reading and it was his magnificent low cross that gave Johansen the chance to tuck away Fulham’s winner.

The irony is that Targett could end up winning promotion with his loan team while his parent club get relegated. It was a clever piece of recruitment to bring him in.

Another shrewd bit of business, and arguably the missing piece in the jigsaw, was signing Mitrovic on loan from Newcastle.

Although the 23-year-old didn’t have his shooting boots on against Reading, you could still see what he offers the team. He can be the target man, the focal point of the attack to bring others into play.

He keeps things simple and also puts in a shift. Credit Jokanovic for getting the best out of him. Nine goals in his first 13 appearances tells its own story.

Yet it would be wrong to suggest that Fulham’s success is solely built on their attacking prowess. They have tightened up defensively and Tuesday’s victory made it four clean sheets on the trot.

Marcus Bettinelli is making key saves between the sticks, while Tim Ream and Denis Odoi have formed a useful partnership in the heart of defence.

Midfielder Kevin McDonald is somewhat of an unsung hero, getting in there and doing some of the dirty work that can often go unseen.

Against Reading, Ream was particularly impressive, making key interventions a number of times and earning the acclaim of the fans.

He was featured on the front cover of the match-day programme, and there was an interesting interview with him inside.

The 30-year-old American explained why the 1-0 defeat at Sunderland in mid-December – their last league loss – proved to be a turning point in their campaign.

“We all kind of looked at each other afterwards and there were a few home truths said in the changing room,” he said.

“We felt embarrassed to have gone there, basically lay an egg and give them their first home win in a year.

“We knew it wasn’t good enough. I don’t know if there was a conscious effort after that as much as things have just clicked in a really positive way since.”

The big plus for Fulham last Tuesday was that their victory was complemented by Cardiff going down 1-0 at Aston Villa thanks to Jack Grealish’s 85th-minute winner.

It meant that the Whites leapfrogged the Welsh club and went a point above them, though the latter have a game in hand.

Perhaps that extra match – Cardiff visit Derby for a rearranged fixture on April 24 – is the reason Jokanovic was keen to downplay the significance of Fulham going second in midweek.

“It’s not important,” he stressed. “The situation is still not under our control – it’s going to depend on Cardiff. They have one game more. We are not thinking so much about the position in this moment.

“On the other side, we catch one target. We are guaranteed a play-off and now we must prepare for the next step, the Brentford game (played on Saturday).”

Cardiff won 2-0 at Norwich yesterday to get back on track after a couple of slips.

“I don’t know how they feel,” he said. “We catch our first target, we must be quiet and try to be ready for next step. You must ask them, I don’t know if they are in good moment tomorrow or not.

“We will make it our job. It’s natural we try to put them under some kind of pressure. If we are going to do it or if we’re not going to do it, I can’t answer you.

“We must to be calm. What we must promise ourselves is effort, desire and ambition. This team show that tonight and in the past, too. We know this is a crazy competition and we must to be calm.”

If Jokanovic had one criticism of his players, it was that they weren’t ‘clinical enough’ to put the game against Reading to bed.

While they missed chances against Paul Clement’s men, they sometimes appear to want to score the perfect goal.

Mitrovic will get his shots off, but others are keen to play one more pass at times when they could have a crack at goal.

But it’s difficult to criticise a team who had, pre-weekend, put together a club record 20-match unbeaten run!

And one goal was enough to earn victory against both Sheffield Wednesday last weekend and Reading.

“We improve our defensive shape,” added Jokanovic. “We are more solid. “Sometimes, to be competitive you must win the game 1-0 or 0-1, like we win the last two games, and this is a positive situation for us because we trust each other. I must be satisfied with this victory tonight.”

A few more might even raise a smile…

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