From the opposition stand – Preston North End

Ahead of this Saturdays mouth-watering clash against high flying Preston North End, I asked Preston fan Jack (@pnetucker) a few questions about North End’s season so far as well as his prediction for the clash at Craven Cottage tomorrow.

First question, what do you make of Prestons season so far?

“If someone was to tell me at the start of the season that by March we would be sixth and with a good chance of getting to the play-offs, I would’ve snapped your hand off. We (the fans) are happy where we are, but we’re not getting ahead of ourselves, its been a satisfying season so far but we are somewhat fearful we could slip down”

How are you feeling about your play-off ambitions at the moment?

“Optimistic, but skeptical, being aware of the teams around us it makes all these games ‘must wins’ as we need to start distancing ourselves away from Blackburn, Bristol City and Swansea. We haven’t done that yet, however I do believe the squad can grind important results, and it does help that some teams around us haven’t been very good , but it’s all down to whether we can take advantage of that or not.”

What do you make of Alex Neil so far this season?

“I think he’s improved us, he’s started to implement a more expansive, attacking style of play, but he still has his flaws, such as the very late substitutions and reluctance to take certain players out of the team. However, that doesn’t change the fact he’s performed miracles with a squad which is one of the cheapest in the league, and with very little backing from the board”

Do you have a player which Fulham fans should look out for this weekend?

“Daniel Johnson is definitely that player to look out for. His ability to control a game and make something for us is magnificent, and he also has goals to his name, not bad for a player we wanted gone in the summer!”

Finally, can I get your thoughts on tomorrows game and a score prediction?

“This has the potential to be a scrappy game as both teams need the points. Darnell Fisher’s red card being rescinded is a huge boost for us and that gives me hope we could put on a solid defensive display, but its hard to keep a player like Mitrovic quiet. I have no idea which way this is going to go but knowing us we could very much do a smash and grab and nick a win, so I’m going to be confident and go for a Preston win.”

Fulham doubts : Maxime Le Marchand, Joshua Onomah, Harrison Reed, Alfie Mawson and Terence Kongolo

Preston North End Doubts : Josh Harrop, Tom Bayliss, Billy Bodin and Louis Moult

My Fulham XI : Rodak, Odoi, Ream, Hector, Bryan, McDonald, Cairney (C), Decordova-Reid, Cavaleiro, Mitrovic, Kamara

@pnetucker’s score prediction: Fulham 0-1 Preston North End

@FFCSeb’s score prediction: Fulham 1-1 Preston North End

Mitrovic’s late show lifts Fulham to third

Aleksandar Mitrovic has never let Fulham down. Even tonight, when it seemed his late penalty miss might make their dreams of automatic promotion even more remote, the Serbian striker popped up with a more decisive moment at the death. Mitrovic leapt high to meet Aboubakar Kamara’s inch-perfect cross and thunder home a trademark header in off the crossbar and clinch a vital three points against distraught fellow promotion chasers Swansea City.

Swansea boss Steve Cooper was as enraged as his players, who surrounded referee Tim Robinson following the final whistle, suggesting that the official had overlooked as many as three penalty appeals, whilst granting Fulham a spot-kick after Neeskens Kebano had tangled with Connor Roberts’ legs at the back post. That award certainly appeared generous – and there was an element of justice served up almost immediately when Freddie Woodman saved both Mitrovic’s unconvincing spot-kick and Kebano’s follow-up.

The penalty miss seemed to drain the life out of a Fulham side who had started at a much higher tempo than in recent weeks. But with time ticking by, Kamara grabbed his opportunity to improve. The French forward, given only eight minutes to turn what was by then a very open contest in Fulham’s favour, drove defiantly down the right and produced an outstanding cross for Mitrovic to bullet home an emphatic header having soared above Ben Cabango in the air.

There was no time for a crestfallen Swansea side to respond. Andre Ayew had to be dragged away from the officials by his team-mates, incandescent with rage at Robinson’s decision to award Fulham a penalty but reject his strong appeals at the other end. He appeared to have been crudely taken out by Denis Odoi, who slid in violently to end a slalom run that had carried him clear of Michael Hector and a couple of other Fulham challengers, as well as waving away convincing claims for handball against Joe Bryan.

Bryan produced a critical piece of defending deep into injury time to divert the ball away from Connor Gallagher as the Chelsea loanee seemed set to burst through on goal and thirty seconds later the ball was in the Swansea net. The visiting players and fans were angered by Robinson’s decision to play on – but television replays appeared to confirm that Bryan, who has been criticised for his defending this season, played the ball cleanly.

In the light of Leeds’ narrow win at relegation-threatened Middlesbrough, this proved a precious three points for Fulham. For an awfully long time, it looked like being another frustrating evening on the bitterly cold banks of the Thames. Scott Parker’s side began with purpose, with much more penetration than of late, but still lacked the decisive touch in front of goal. Woodman made a smothering save inside the first thirty seconds with Anthony Knockaert, who flattered to deceive once again, whipping in a shot at the near post.

The goalkeeper then made amends for a poor clearance by thwarting Bobby Decordova-Reid and later acrobatically tipped an inswinging Ivan Cavaleiro corner onto the crossbar. Swansea took a while to get themselves into the contest, but the visitors soon created openings of their own. Joe Rodon flicked a free-kick right across the face of goal and Ayew did brilliantly to burst away from Tim Ream and onto Gallagher’s clever flick but couldn’t find a finish after rounding Marek Rodak, allowing Odoi to nip in and clear in the nick of time.

Fulham continued to apply serious pressure of their own. Cavaleiro’s curler looped wide after Cabongo had closed the winger down effectively – bringing to an end a sweeping move that saw the Whites work their way out from the back before Cairney and Bryan fashioned the opening down the left. Mitrovic inexplicably shanked an effort wide after being released by Knockaert following a rare mistake from Joe Rodon and then volleyed fractionally over having made an opportunity all for himself: chesting down Rodak’s long kick and swivelling to shoot in an instant. Swansea could have been in front at the break, though, with former Brentford full-back Jake Bidwell heading agonisingly wide from a near post corner.

The second half didn’t quite have the same intensity to it initially, but it bubbled up nicely. The speedy Rhian Brewster, booked in the first half for a nasty lunge at Tom Cairney, fired straight at Rodak and Bryan was fortunate to survive penalty claims when he appeared to handle a cross from Jay Fulton. At the other end, Rodon produced a couple of excellent bits of defending in quick succession to repel Mitrovic and Cavaleiro.

Swansea had good chances to open the scoring on the break. Brewster spurned a good chance created by Bidwell and substitute Jordon Garrick was foiled by a great reaction save from Rodak and the offside flag. Ayew sped clear twice down the left wing, once he was denied by Rodak, and then by the referee when he was sent sprawling to the turf by Odoi’s ill-judged lunge.

The spot-kick actually arrived at the other end, when Robinson pointed for a penalty after two substitutes collided at the far post. It seemed an accidental tangling of legs between Kebano and Roberts, but the referee was adamant. Mitrovic went for placement rather than power and Woodman palmed away both the penalty and the rebound – only to be beaten at the very last by the Serbian’s moment of redemption.

FULHAM (4-3-3): Rodak; Odoi, Bryan, Hector, Ream; Arter (McDonald 90+5), Cairney, Decordova-Reid; Knockaert (Kamara 83), Cavaleiro (Kebano 78), Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Christie, S. Sessegnon, Johansen.

GOAL: Mitrovic (90+4).

SWANSEA CITY (4-2-3-1): Woodman; Naughton (Roberts 82), Bidwell, Cabango, Rodon; Grimes, Fulton; Kalulu (Garrick 64), Ayew, Gallagher; Brewster. Subs (not used): Mulder, Wilmot, Dhanda, Cullen, Dyer.

BOOKED: Brewster, Fulton, Naughton, Ayew.

REFEREE: Tim Robinson (West Sussex).

ATTENDANCE: 17,626.

Opposition in focus – Swansea City

Another game under the lights and a much anticipated double header at Craven Cottage kicks off on Wednesday evening when we host South Wales outfit Swansea City.

In the return fixture we managed to hold on to a 2-1 lead on what was an entertaining encounter back on a cold Friday evening in late November, and this game represents a massive chance to get back to winning ways following a frustrating three match winless streak. After making a very fast start to the season, Swansea seemed to have tailed off in the new year, however three wins in a row have put them firmly in the play-off race. Steve Cooper is one of the country’s most progressive and promising coaches, although he will be alarmed that one of the division’s most miserly defences has managed just a single clean sheet in their last seven league games – against QPR. which came at an out of form QPR side.

The man to watch for the Swans is definitely striker Andre Ayew, scoring 13 times this campaign, including one against us back at the Liberty Stadium. He’s formed a potent partnership with Sam Surridge, impressive on loan from AFC Bournemouth, scoring seven times in all competitions. The Swans have plenty of creative quality in midfield and will fancy their chances of exploiting any frailties in the Fulham defence.

Veterans Mike Van Der Hoorn and Wayne Routledge will both be missing tonight, but Aldo Kalulu is available despite being forced off in his last fixture against Huddersfield, while winger Nathan Dyer faces a late fitness test to be ready in time. Scott Parker has no new injury issues for this game. The game will fall just too soon for the return of Harrison Reed while Alfie Mawson, Maxime Le Marchand and Terence Kongolo are all still sidelined for the Cottagers.

A victory is crucial for Fulham as we continue to try and mount the pressure on the top two – but Swansea will prove a tough test.

My Preferred Fulham XI: Rodak, Christie, Odoi, Hector, Bryan, McDonald, Cairney (c), Bobby Decordova-Reid, Cavaleiro, Mitrovic, Knockaert

My score prediction: Fulham 2-0 Swansea City

Rodak redeems himself

Marek Rodak redeemed himself by making a string of fine saves as Fulham fought back to claim a point at Derby County this evening. The Slovakian goalkeeper, who endured an error-strewn afternoon as bottom of the table Barnsley romped to victory at Craven Cottage last weekend, made three outstanding stops to prevent Philip Cocu’s side from adding to a lead supplied by a cheeky paneka penalty from Wayne Rooney, making his 500th league appearance in English football.

Aleksandar Mitrovic, as he so often does, came to Fulham’s rescue – reviving a rather timid performance with a stroke of magic to guide in Aboubakar Kamara’s cross for the equaliser. The Serbian’s 22nd Championship goal of the season set up a grandstand finish during which either side could have won it, but both ultimately had to settle for what was a frustrating point. The result means Scott Parker’s side are two points behind second-placed Leeds, who host Reading tomorrow afternoon.

It could have been much worse for the visitors who, despite enjoying the lion’s share of the possession against another of the division’s footballing sides, struggled to create clear-cut chances. It was Derby, far more incisive in the final third, who fashioned the game’s better openings. Rodak was called into action first on eleven minutes when a clever Rooney cross was diverted goalwards by Tom Lawrence, who had incredibly shot out of the stadium when presented with the evening’s first chance.

Lawrence, playing wider than he would prefer to order to accommodate Rooney, then saw a 20-yard drive deflected agonisingly wide. The home side were growing in confidence and one majestic move saw Rooney release full back Craig Forsyth into the inside-left challenge but his low cross only just eluded Martyn Waghorn in the middle. Rodak then made a wonderful save at full stretch to preserve parity when Matt Clarke reached a free-kick at the far post and looked to have turned it home at full stretch.

Fulham’s brightest moments involved Mitrovic, who still seemed far too isolated to be a regular threat. He was denied by an intelligent piece of defending from Curtis Davies but, after a sweeping break, nearly diverted Anthony Knockaert’s cross goalwards before heading a Bobby Decordova-Reid delivery straight at Ben Hamer in the Derby goal.

It was Cocu’s team that finished the first period on the front foot. Waghorn battled to win the ball back for Derby inside his own half and the hosts probed patiently for an opening before Lawrence unleashed a low drive from just inside the box that Rodak palmed aside.

The game followed a similar pattern after the restart with Derby looking the more lively in front of goal as Fulham’s rather ponderous passing seemed to be leading nowehere. Andre Wisdom wasted a glorious opportunity on the edge of the Fulham box, blazing wildly over when he could have chosen to pass to one of three team-mates in good positions, but Derby weren’t ruing their defender’s lack of composure for too long.

The opening goal arrived ten minutes after the break – and through a mess of Fulham’s own making. The visitors attempted to play their way out from the back with another short goal kick but Joe Bryan’s risky pass went astray. Waghorn turned Tim Ream in the area and referee Darren Bond penalised the American centre back for what seemed a rather harsh handball. Rooney, a regular scourge of Fulham over the years, impudently chipped home the penalty over a helpless Rodak.

That setack did at least serve to enliven Fulham. Mitrovic floated a free-kick towards the top corner that Hamer plucked out of the air and the Serbian couldn’t quite get to another inviting Bryan cross with Hamer doing his best to put him off. Parker sent on Kamara and Ivan Cavaleiro in a bid to find a leveller – and the changes worked within five minutes. Both substitutes were involved in the move that led to Mitrovic produced a wonderfully controlled volley into the bottom corner from Kamara’s rather speculative cross, with Cavaleiro’s purposeful run and shot rebonding kindly for the Frenchman.

Fulham might have had a second with seven minutes to play when Kevin McDonald’s searching forward ball sent Kamara haring towards the Derby box. The ball fell nicely for Cavaleiro, who should have done better than lash over the bar from the edge of the area. Derby weren’t content to shut up shop and settle for a point – Odoi blocked a Rooney strike before Rodak made outrageous stops to first keep out a rocket from young Max Bird and then readjust in the nick of time to bundle Davies’ attempted finish away from behind him as it looked certain to nestle in the net. The young goalkeeper even scrambled across his line to keep out Lawrence’s corner in stoppage time to preserve parity.

DERBY COUNTY (4-2-3-1): Hamer; Wisdom, Forsyth, Davies, Clarke; Shinnie, Bird; Knight (Jozefzoon 78), Lawrence, Rooney; Waghorn (Marriott 78). Subs (not used): Roos, Lowe, Bogle, Sibley, Martin.

GOAL: Rooney (pen 54).

FULHAM (4-3-3): Rodak; Odoi, Bryan, Hector, Ream; Arter (McDonald 81), Johansen (Kamara 65), Cairney; Knockaert (Cavaleiro 66), Decordova-Reid, Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Christie, S. Sessegnon, Kebano.

BOOKED: Arter.

GOAL: Mitrovic (71).

REFEREE: Darren Bond (Lancashire).

ATTENDANCE: 25,442.

Opposition in focus – Derby County

Another helping of Friday night football sees Fulham make the journey north to face Phillip Cocu’s Derby County side at Pride Park this evening.

Tonight’s televised game is our first visit to Derbyshire since the memorable Championship play-off semi final and it comes off the back of a disappointing defeat at home to Barnsley last weekend. If Scott Parker needs to lift his troops, he might be able to raise spirits by recalling Fulham’s comfortable 3-0 dispatching of the Rams in November. Cocu and Derby have to be disappointed with their season so far, with the club currently nine points off the play-off places in thirteenth, although the arrival of veteran Wayne Rooney, who has scored nine goals in twelve appearances against Fulham, seems to have sparked something of a revival. Derby are unbeaten in four and have scored sixteen goals in their last twelve league outings.

The Rams, with Cocu finally able to transmit his vision to a squad that contains plenty of quality, probably still have realistic promotion aspirations – especially with how crazy this division remains. As well as Rooney, County have plenty of quality within their squad. Creative midfielder Tom Lawrence has seven goals to his name already this time and former Fulham striker Chris Martin, who has formed a potent partnership with the evergreen Martyn Waghorn up front, will be eager to remind us all of his talent. The pair have plundered nineteen goals between them so far this season.

The home side will have to do without the experienced Tom Huddlestone, a regular scourge of Fulham, who has succumbed to a long-standing calf problem. American midfielder Duane Holmes, scorer of a stunning equaliser at Middlesbrough, is also missing due to a leg injury but Cocu should be able to welcome back the former Liverpool defender Andre Wisdom from a hamstring strain.

Parker’s injury concerns are familiar. Harrison Reed is likely to miss out again, whilst defenders Alfie Mawson, Terence Kongolo and Maxime Le Marchand are long-term absentees. The Whites are in dire need of both a performance and a big result at Pride Park to breathe new life into their promotion push, especially after their meek capitulation against bottom of the table Barnsley. 700 Fulham fans are making the journey up to Derby tonight as Parker aims to put the pressure back on Leeds before Saturday’s fixtures.

MY FULHAM XI (4-3-3): Rodak; Christie, Odoi, Hector, Bryan; McDonald, Cairney, Onomah; Decordova-Reid, Mitrovic, Cavaleiro

My prediction: Derby County 1-2 Fulham.

February Madness – Part Three

Have we recovered from Saturday yet? I’m not sure if I have. It was a performance that included everything bad about Fulham this season. For certain games and periods of games we have looked so good, but for the most part we have been pedestrian and devoid of ideas. Yes, we have managed to get the results that have us up in third place, but bar the Millwall home game back in August we haven’t really played out of second or third gear. I honestly believe that this squad has so much to offer, but we are playing with shackles on, and if we don’t release them soon we’ll find ourselves out of the top 6.

But let’s not get too down on ourselves. As I say, we are still in 3rd place and while the last couple of results have seen us miss a huge opportunity to move into second, we are still very much in this fight. Fulham are actually 6th in the form table when you look at the last six Championship matches. Remarkably, there is only one side from the top six above us in the form table, and that’s Preston North End. The last two results have sucked, but when we look at the bigger picture, things aren’t as bad as they could be.

While all of our games are considered as ‘must win’ at the minute, Derby on Friday night has become important for more than just the result. The team have to come and put in a performance that shows us that they are up for this. We haven’t played at Pride Park since we lost the first leg the play-offs in 2018, but earlier that season early goals from Ryan Sessegnon and Aleksander Mitrovic were enough for all three points. I was at that game, and the way we played in the first half, you’d have thought that we were going to win about 7nil. We were sublime, and Derby couldn’t contain us at all, but we let them into the second half, and nearly blew it at the end. We need the Fulham of the first half from that game in 2018 to show up for 90minutes on Friday. Derby have had a reasonably poor season, but they have been a bit better recently and Wayne Rooney has helped to boost the mood around Pride Park. They taken 10points from the last six games, which isn’t awful considering that they are down in 13th in the table.

For the promotion race, arguably West Brom and Brentford have the hardest games this weekend. Brentford host a Blackburn side who are at the top of the form table and who are closing in on a top 6 spot themselves, while West Brom face Bristol City away, who are in 7th. There’s no easy game in this league, but you’d expect Leeds, Forest and Preston all to get wins this weekend, so we need to put the pressure on by taking 3points on Friday night.

Football is a funny game. While the result on Saturday was terrible, it was the manner in which we performed that was the most disappointing. Barnsley didn’t come and nick a 1nil victory, they played us off the park. But the good thing about football is that there is always the next game to put things right. Roll on Friday night.

#COYW