Not since Steve Milton’s winner in April 1990 have Fulham beaten Brentford at Craven Cottage. That win was enough to see Ray Lewington’s side successively avoid relegation from Division Three – and this evening, in front of the Sky cameras, would be a good time for the Whites to end that miserable 28 year run and take another step towards claiming the second automatic promotion place back to the Premier League. The fact that a 20-match unbeaten run hasn’t been enough to carry Slavisa Jokanovic’s side clear of their challengers shows just how crazy the Championship really is and, for all Neil Warnock’s protestations to the contrary over the last week, Cardiff remain in charge of their own destiny.
All Fulham can do is win their remaining games and hope that the Bluebirds continue to stumble within sight of the finish line. Not that it will be easy – there’s no doubting that on paper, their next two fixtures against local rivals with genuine chances of pinching a play-off spot look like the toughest of the final four tests. Dean Smith’s Brentford, who will be motivated beyond belief to end Fulham’s incredible unbeaten run, have won their last three fixtures whilst keeping consecutive clean sheets and sit just four points behind six-placed Millwall, who Fulham will face in another crunch clash on Friday night.
The Bees already have a record of inflicting painful defeats at the Cottage. As well as the seventeen game streak dating back to 1990, Brentford have also triumphed at Fulham since the Whites returned to English football’s second tier. In 2015, Mark Warburton’s side cruised to a comfortable victory secured by a Stuart Dallas double, with Alan Judge adding a free kick in stoppage time and, to coin a phrase, Jota netting the fourth in the last minute. The last two contests have been enthralling draws, with last season’s stalemate effectively securing Slavisa Jokanovic’s side a play-off place at the expense of Leeds United.
Jokanovic’s side might be motivated to expunge the memory of the lamentable defeat at Griffin Park back in December when the Serbian decided to field Stefan Johansen as the successor to Sone Aluko in the fake forward role. His side failed to capitalise on Neeskens Kebano’s opener and crumbled after half time once David Button had allowed Sergi Canos to equalise. After Romaine Sawyers had given the hosts the lead, Denis Odoi was needlessly sent off for a second yellow within a couple of minutes and, as Fulham pressed for an equaliser, the impressive Ollie Watkins put the game beyond the visitors.
The Bees are on an excellent run of form and will head to the Cottage full of confidence. Smith’s men are the second best possession side in the division and that should lend itself to an intriguing battle of similar styles, with a little bit of derby day blood and thunder thrown in. Fulham completed failed to nullify Brentford’s flair at Griffin Park before Christmas and should they make the same mistake again, it could be another derby disappointment. Watkins, a clever capture from Exeter in the summer, has both the pace and intelligence to trouble the best defenders in the Championship, as he showed when his surging run helped bring the Bees level in the reverse fixture. Sawyers and Canos pose potent threats as well, whilst the pair of orthodox central midfielders – Ryan Woods and Josh McEachran – are skilled at both keeping possession and shielding a tight back four.
Barring the majestic run to the Division One title by Jean Tigana’s side at the turn of the century, which still seems too good to be true even now, Fulham’s promotion tilts have often had a little stumble towards the end of the season. A repeat simply isn’t an option now if Jokanovic’s side want to avoid the lottery of the play-offs following the heart-wrenching defeat at Reading last year. The Serbian’s team haven’t been at their fluent best in their last two narrow wins over Sheffield Wednesday and the Royals, but did enough to claim all three points. A repeat is in order this evening, although Jokanovic will be after a much more convincing display from his charges.
The home side will be without the injured Sheyi Ojo and Floyd Ayite meaning the head coach’s only real dilemma will centre around who to pick in the right wing spot. Lucas Piazon has the technical ability and touch to suit Fulham’s patient possession style but has been a little in effectual of late, whilst Kebano’s raw pace has suddenly reappeared to frighten tiring defences from the bench. Jokanovic prefers to use the Congolese winger as an impact substitute – a role he filled so successfully towards the end of last season. The big difference between the Fulham side that wilted at Griffin Park and this team is made by Matt Targett and Aleksandar Mitrovic, who have added Premier League quality at both ends of the pitch. The on-loan Newcastle striker could make himself a real cult hero with a big goal against the Bees tonight.
MY FULHAM XI (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks, Targett, Odoi, Ream; McDonald, Johansen, Cairney; Kebano, R. Sessegnon, Mitrovic. Subs: Button, Christie, Kalas, Norwood, Piazon, Fonte, Kamara.