February Madness – An Update

In the midst of the Premier League’s first ever winter break, Championship sides are in their busiest period of the year. I wrote an article a week or so ago about our February, and the seven games that we have that could end our promotion bid or see it go into overdrive. Two games in and things are swaying towards the latter. I’ve had a look at all of the fixtures for the current top 6 to give us an idea of the possible twists and turns ahead. It’s so tight that I could have included a couple of teams outside that as well, especially Bristol City, but to keep it simple I’ll stick with 1st to 6th.

With there being so many games in such a short period of time, and many of the top 6 playing each other, we know that the table could look very different by the end of the month. We are in one of the most unpredictable leagues in the world, but over the last couple of weeks very few results have went against Fulham. We have managed to capitalise by winning four out of the past five leagues games, but the pressure is still very much on. We can’t count on the teams around us having bad days over and over again so we need to keep up the momentum.

Fulham have won four out of their last five games

This would probably be the worse time to have a bad run. To come so close to the automatics and then to tail off would reveal a real weak spot in our squad. Being part of the chasing pack is the easy bit! The question now is whether or not the boys can take the chance that has just handed to us on a  silver platter and not let go. In the year we beat Aston Villa in the play-offs, arguably we should have went up automatically, but questionable results right at the end when it was in our own hands cost us. I don’t think anyone cares as we were given one of the greatest days in our history, but things might not end so rosily this time around.

Can we expect Leeds to continue to fall apart? Can we rely on Brentford to start dropping more points? No. We have gotten ourselves in an incredible position, but we have to follow through now. To be honest, I would rather that this opportunity had came further on in the season. Obviously I want nothing less than a win at Millwall, but if we do win tomorrow night and go into second, then we have a heck of a long time to fend off the hunters. Yet, if we don’t win then that is a huge opportunity missed which could eat away at the squad. AH, the dilemma’s of football fans, eh?

This league continues to amaze me. I can’t remember it being tighter than this ever and it’s both the best and the worst thing that could happen. The best because of the pure drama of it, and the worst because at this rate I doubt that I will have any colour left in my hair come May! This stress, though, I wouldn’t swap it for anything.

COYW

Opposition in focus – Millwall

Fulham will look to pile to on the pressure on the Championship’s top two when they make the short journey across London to take on Millwall at the Den tomorrow night.

The Lions looked to putting together another play-off push around the turn of the year, but just one win in five leaves them some five points off the top six. Gary Rowett, who has a history of surprising Fulham, was disappointed with Millwall’s display against league leaders West Brom on Sunday and has called for his side to put things right against Scott Parker’s outfit. They are usually a formidable outfit on their own turf, having lost just three times at home so far this season.

Fulham comfortably won the reverse fixture 4-0 at Craven Cottage back in August – dominating possession in one of their most complete performances of the campaign, but the Whites are unlikely to be given as much time on the ball as they had earlier in the season. The quality of the playing surface at the Den might make it difficult for Fulham to move the ball as swiftly as they might like, as it cut up horribly during Sunday’s clash with the after effects of Stom Ciara not having done it any faours.

Millwall might struggle to score goals – having managed to find the net just 38 times so far this season – but former Fulham striker Matt Smith will be keen to make a point against his old club. Rowett may consider switching to a back five to counter Fulham’s strengths by recalling Alex Pearce to his starting eleven. Millwall make a late decision on the fitness of midfielder Ryan Leonard, who came through a behind close doors friendly for the under 23s on Monday alongside Mason Bennett, who is also contention for a return from injury. The Whites will need to keep a close eye on Jed Wallace, who has scored ten goals so far this season as well as providing nine assists from the wing.

Parker may ponder a recall for the fit-again Anthony Knockaert, who was on the bench at Blackburn at the weekend. Harrison Reed and Maxime Le Marchand are still sidelined through injury whilst Alfie Mawson may miss the remainder of the season having undergone knee surgery last week. The Whites will travel to south east London in good heart, looking to extend their five-match unbeaten run, although they only taken a single point from their last seven league London derbies since winning 3-0 at Millwall in April 2018.

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

MY PREDICTION: Millwall 0-1 Fulham.

Fulham can’t get carried away

Fulham are on something of a roll and it promises to make an already tight Championship very interesting indeed. Since the lamentable loss to Reading on New Year’s Day, the Whites have claimed thirteen points from a possible fifteen, keeping four clean sheets in the process. The arrival of Michael Hector and the outstanding form of Martin Rodak are certainly the driving force behind Fulham’s new found stubbornness at the back, something that will need to continue if Scott Parker’s side have genuine ambitions of making it into the top two.

Back in August, I was concerned about the defence and the fact Fulham had not strengthened in the summer. The club acted on that in January and, you could argue that last month might go down as one of our strongest windows in recent history, after securing Bobby Decordova-Reid and Ivan Cavaleiro permanently and bringing in Hector as well as Terence Kongolo. We look more organised from back to front, tougher to play through and there seems to be a real togetherness in this squad.

The fact that the Whites are now level on points with Leeds and just four points behind West Brom is remarkable considering the gap between us a few short weeks ago. This, though, is no time for complacency. We can’t afford to consider the job done and expect the likes of Leeds to fade away. Fulham still have trips to Elland Road, the Hawthorns and the City Ground to come in probably the toughest run-in of any of the top sides and I fully expect that the top four or five teams could alternate in the leading positions before the final sprint to the line in May.

The advantage of Fulham’s recent upturn in form is that the situation is now firmly in our own hands. Character and seizing the opportunity is what it will come down to now. The squad has the chance to prove their promotion credentials at the Den on Wednesday night, with Millwall eager to make up for their disappointing display against the Baggies at the weekend and revive their own play-off push. It won’t be easy, but Parker and the team could lay down a marker in south east London with a big performance.

This squad might well be stronger than both the one that reached the Premier League under Jokanovic and, certainly, the side that struggled in the top flight last season. We can hope to learn from the mistakes made as we prepared for our return to the Premier League, but it is vital not to get carried away at this point. We all know the Championship is an unforgiving division and, with a third of the season still ahead of us, there is a lot of football left yet. The key will be consistency – and it is likely that we will have to marry the grit Fulham have shown of late with some of the silkier football that has become our trademark in order to be celebrating at the end of the season.

Fulham’s future stars

Fulham’s academy is renowned for the development of outstanding young players and have been churning out accomplished footballers for many years now under the watchful eye of director Huw Jennings. Fulham fans don’t need to be reminded of the exploits of Ryan Sessegnon or Moussa Dembele, whilst both Marek Rodak and Steven Sessegnon have shown signs of being the next homegrown youngsters to slot into the senior side.

There is great excitement about the next generation of young talent currently making their way through the Motspur Park pathway. Both Jay Stansfield and Sylvester Jasper have starred for the under-18 side that is currently top of their Premier League division and the pair were rewarded for their outstanding form with first-team debuts by Scott Parker.

The depth of talent extends deeper still and, in this article, I’ve highlighted the progress of three outstanding under-16 talents, who have the potential to excel at the highest level for the Whites in the years to come.

Michael Olakigbe

Michael Olakigbe is a versatile winger, at home on either flank, and comfortable with both feet. The youngster plays his football with real flair and has made great progress since joining Fulham from QPR in the summer of 2018. Olakigbe honed his prodigious skills at the East Soccerbase Academy and he is eligible to represent either England or Nigeria at international level. At just 15, the fact that Olakigbe has made two appearances for the under-18s – scoring against Reading last Saturday – and he was named on the bench for the U23s against Stoke City as well.

Olakigbe hopes to emulate the stellar performances of Wilfried Zaha, who he considers his idol, in the Premier League in the future. You can’t fault his ambition, but given his undoubted talent you wouldn’t bet against him making his mark in the senior team in years to come.

Xavier Benjamin

Xavier Benjamin is a strong, athletic centre back, who is very comfortable with the ball at his feet, making him ideally equipped to be a very modern defender. He has the confidence to dominate opposing forwards and is also vocal on the field of play, marking him out as leadership material in the future. and his vocal ability sets him up to be a leader in the future. Benjamin’s ball-playing ability means he is finely attuned to Fulham’s footballing philosophy and you can why the club have high hopes for him at this relatively early stage in his development.

Benjamin has already been sponsored by Puma, which is an unusual development at such a young age, but suggests that plenty of people have noted his talent. The centre back has already represented England at under-15 level and has already featured twice for the under-18 side this season. He was another youngster to be included on the bench for the recent PL2 fixture against Stoke at Craven Cottage and has shown character to battle back from an ankle injury, which interrupted his exposure to under-18 football. Benjamin believes he can go on to play Premier League football, although his immediate target will be laying claim to a regular spot in Steve Wigley’s side.

Stefan Parkes

Stefan Parkes is a versatile full back, who usually plays on the left side of a back four. The youngster is yet another defender who is confident in possession and is viewed as one of the most promising prospects within the academy. 

Parkes arrived from Brentford as an under-12 when the Griffin Park club opted to abolish their academy structure. The pathway for Parkes has already been set by the meteoric rise of the Sessegnon twins and he certainly has the ability to follow in their footsteps. He has already featured for the under-18s, breaking into the side at the tender age of fifteen last season and not looking at all out of place.

The full back has also had to come to terms with an injury that has limited his participation during this campaign, but his talent has not gone unnoticed. Parkes, already a regular in the England youth set-up, captained his country’s under-15s against Belgium and his composure and maturity has impressed plenty of observers. He recently played his first full ninety minutes against Tottenham for the under-18s and will have his sights set on continuing his outstanding development to date.

Hector hails Fulham’s fortitude

Michael Hector hailed Fulham’s defensive display after the Whites ‘dug in’ at Ewood Park to secure a narrow victory over Blackburn Rovers yesterday afternoon.

The Jamaican international has made a huge difference since coming into the Fulham back four in January, keeping four clean sheets in five appearances, and helping Scott Parker’s side move level on points with Leeds in the race for an automatic promotion spot. The centre back was pleased with Fulham’s focus yesterday as they had to be patient and wait for their opportunities against a well-drilled Blackburn outfit.

He told the club’s official website:

It wasn’t the type of pitch that we could play our nice football on, but we showed a side to us where we dug in and waited for our chance. And when you’ve got Mitro up front you’re always going to have a chance to grab a goal. We defended really well, we had to be horrible, and it was a nice away win.

Hector revealed that the players weren’t getting too carried away with the fact that the gap to Leeds had been whittled down to nothing, given the unpredictable nature of the division.

It’s the Championship, everyone has their dip, everyone has their run, and we’ve just got to keep plugging away and concentrate on our games. I think that’s important in the Champ. You’ve just got to take care of your game, and the rest will take care of themselves. There’s so many games in the Champ that you can put a couple of wins together and you jump three or four places.

It’s so tight this league at the moment, Bristol City could have won and gone above us. It’s a crazy league, but that’s what you love about it. We’ve got good momentum but we’ve just got to focus on the next game. When May comes, we’ll see where we are. It’s onto Millwall now and we fight for another three points.

Parker pleased with Fulham’s professionalism

Scott Parker was delighted that Fulham edged a tight contest at Ewood Park this afternoon to stretch their unbeaten run to five league games.

The Fulham boss knew that Blackburn would be offer a tough test on their home turf and was pleased that his side responded after a rather lacklustre first half, winning thanks to a second half strike from Serbian striker Aleksandar Mitrovic.

I thought it was a well earned battle, a committed performance for an away game. Blackburn have not lost here in 10, I think the last time they lost was in September. We knew the challenge that was coming and we stood up to that challenge. First half we matched them but didn’t get enough control, we weren’t as brave as I’d have liked us to be.

We addressed that at half-time, we spoke about trying to get a bit more control, turning down their attacks, and having a patience about us, and I think the goal epitomised that really. We turned down an attack, the gaps became bigger and suddenly you can carve things open, and that’s what our opportunity came from.

It was always going to be a game of limited opportunities, but when ours came we needed to take it. It fell to Mitrovic who puts it into the back of the net, and then it turns into what most Championship games turn into at 1-0. They send a lot of bodies up top, big lads, put a lot of balls into our box, and at that point it’s a different game for us. We have to show another side to us and defend the game out.

Parker was particular pleased with the goalscorer’s all-round contribution to Fulham’s success – as well as the fact that Mitrovic has now notched 20 goals for the campaign.

It’s a big return for so early in the season. I think what makes me most proud of Mitrovic today is his overall performance. We all see him for his goal and his technical ability with the way he plays, but I think he epitomised everything we needed today, and that was roll your sleeves up and, first and foremost, win a battle. He did that, and he deserved his goal.

Mitrovic pinches precious win

A piece of predatory finishing from Aleksandar Mitrovic ensured Fulham emerged from a tight contest at Blackburn Rovers with three precious points in their push for automatic promotion. The Serbian striker’s 20th goal of the season was enough to inflict Blackburn’s home league defeat since September and helped Scott Parker’s side move level on points with second placed Leeds.

Moments of quality were few and far between at Ewood Park, with Blackburn tough to break down and limited in the final third, whilst Fulham’s possession football looked largely toothless for the first hour. Mitrovic was starved of significant service, but produced a moment of magic to spin away from Toisin Adarabioyo and fire Joe Bryan’s low cross past Christian Walton in the 65th minute.

The visitors could have put the game beyond Blackburn before a frantic finale. Tom Cairney, afforded a warm reception on his return to Ewood Park, was denied a goal by a smart Walton stop at his near post. The goalkeeper did well to smother Stefan Johansen’s late effort at close quarters but the Norwegian should have lifted his finish out of his reach having been played in by Mitrovic.

Those misses meant Blackburn were in the game until the end – and their persistence very nearly paid off. Michael Hector was excellent once again at the heart of the Fulham defence, but his one mistake let in Sam Gallagher. Marek Rodak bailed out the Jamaican international with a fine one-handed stop at his near post. Fulham had an even greater let off later on when Darragh Lenihan crept behind the back four after they failed to clear a set play, but his composed finish was ruled out by an offside flag. Television replays suggested that the decision was incorrect, something which enraged Tony Mowbray.

The fact that there was little between these two sides, even with Rovers missing six first teamers through injury, underlines what a good job Mowbray is doing in trying circumstances. His side restricted Fulham to a pair of half chances in a forgettable half. Walton turned aside a Hector header from a corner before sparing Ryan Nyambe’s blushes after the young defender diverted Bobby Decordova-Reid’s cross towards his own top corner.

Rovers fashioned the game’s first opening – with Gallagher heading onto the roof of the net after Adam Armstrong had embarrassed Bryan – but didn’t really put Fulham under any prolonged pressure until a stirring climax when they slung a succession of high balls into the area. Hector and the returning Tim Ream repelled most of them to earn another excellent clean sheet.

In many ways, this was the perfect professional away performance for Parker. Fulham were functional rather than flashy and their success was underpinned by a grit and spirit that suggests they might have to staying power to seriously threaten the top two. Something which seemed fanciful at Christmas is now within touching distance.

BLACKBURN ROVERS (4-2-3-1): Walton; Nyambe, Bell, Lenihan, Adarabioyo; Travis, Johnson (Graham 72); Rankin-Costello (Samuel 72), Downing, Armstrong (Brereton 89); Gallagher. Subs (not used): Williams, Leutwiler, Davenport, Bennett.

FULHAM (4-3-3): Rodak; Odoi, Bryan, Hector, Ream; McDonald, Onomah (Kongolo 81), Cairney (Johansen 86); Cavaleiro (Kamara 90), Decordova-Reid, Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Christie, S. Sessegnon, Knockaert.

BOOKED: Decordova-Reid.

GOAL: Mitrovic (65).

REFEREE: Tony Harrington (Cleveland).

ATTENDANCE: 13,087.

Opposition in focus – Blackburn Rovers

This weekend sees Fulham make the trip north to face Tony Mowbray’s Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park.

A solid set of recent results see Rovers comfortably sat in 10th place and in with a serious shot of securing a play-off place, which might have been considered a surprise at the start of the season. Blackburn have been in brilliant form of late, losing just two of their last fourteen league games. They thrashed Sheffield Wednesday 5-0 in an eye-catching romp at Hillsborough. That result typified their free-scoring style, with Mowbray’s men having netted 43 goals in 30 league games – which is the second highest of anyone outside the top six. Former Newcastle forward Adam Armstrong has scored nine of them, whilst also laying on six assists.

Rovers’ recent run is all the more impressive given their lengthy injury list. The outstanding Bradley Dack, probably one of the most consistent creative midfielders in the Championship, is likely to miss most of 2020 after injuring his anterior cruciate ligament against Wigan back in December. Former Fulham midfielder Lewis Holtby will be missing as well after picking up a knee problem in last weekend’s draw at Middlesbrough. Six other first-teamers are definitely out of tomorrow’s game.

Rovers will be able to count on the services of impressive young right back Ryan Nyambe, who is forging a name for himself as one of the Championship’s brightest talents. The 22 year-old Namibian international has been on the radar of a whole host of top clubs, but Blackburn will be hoping he is willing to continue his encouraging development at Ewood Park as Mowbray looks to build a squad able to compete for promotion.

Fulham’s injury issues appear to be clearing up a little. Both Anthony Knockaert and Harrison Reed will have late fitness tests to see if they can play any part tomorrow, whilst Terence Kongolo could make his first league appearance for the Whites alongside a recalled Tim Ream at the heart of the defence. Fulham could record a first league double over Rovers since the famous one that put them on the brink of promotion from Division One in 2000-01, after goals from former Blackburn man Tom Cairney and Aleksandar Mitrovic secured a 2-0 success at Craven Cottage in August. Parker will want his side to stretch their impressive run of a single defeat in their last seven games, but the Fulham boss will know they will need to be far more disciplined than they were in last weekend’s win over Huddersfield to take home all three points.

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

My prediction: Blackburn Rovers 0-2 Fulham

Fulham fall to Manchester City in FA Youth Cup exit

A brave Fulham side went out of the FA Youth Cup after losing a tight fifth round tie by the barest of margins at Manchester City this evening. A fine individual goal from Lewis Fiorini settled a cagey contest, with Steve Wigley’s youngsters fighting all the way to finish.

The game started slowly, with both sides feeling each other out tentatively. Fulham fashioned the first opportunity when Sylvester Jasper’s clever free-kick almost fell for Fabio Carvalho but goalkeeper Cieran Slicker was alert to the danger and came off his line to clear. At the other end, Fulham had done well to keep City’s patient possession from threatening their goal – but they were undone by the home side’s first serious attack.

Scottish attacking midfielder Fiorini was allowed to carry the ball deep into Fulham territory having picked up possession inside his own half and curled an unstoppable finish into the top corner from just outside the box. It was a magnificent individual effort worthy of winning any contest, although Wigley will have been disappointed with his defence’s failure to close Fiorini down.

Fulham kept pushing forward and another Jasper free-kick almost delivered an equaliser before half time. This time Luca Murphy rose well at the far post but his header drifted fractionally wide of the target. Jay Stansfield then produced a superb through ball to send Jasper clear of the City defence but his tame finish was easily thwarted by Slicker.

The visitors continued to threaten after the interval with Josh Wilson-Esbrand forced into a hurried clearance to deal with a strong run from Ollie O’Neill. At the other end, the lively Jayden Braaf was a constant threat to the Fulham defence and the young Dutch winger cut inside dangerously before firing marginally wide from the edge of the area.

Braaf then presented Morgan Rivers with a glorious chance to settle the contest twelve minutes from ten. He tormented the retreating Fulham defence, embarking on a mazy run before unselfishly squaring for Rogers, who inexplicably missed the target altogether from six yards out.

Fulham roused themselves for one final assault and it looked as if they might force extra time twice at the death. First, Slicker produced a quite exceptional reaction save to kept out Jonathan Page’s strike after City failed to clear a free-kick with five minutes left. Stansfield thought he had grabbed an equaliser deep into stoppage time after bundling home from close range, but the assistant referee’s flag cut short joyous celebrations as the goal was chalked off for an offside in the build-up.

MANCHESTER CITY UNDER 18s (4-3-3): Slicker; Diounkou, Wilson-Esbrand (Robinson 77′), Doyle, McDonald; Knight (Delap 63′), Mbete-Tabu, Palmer; Fiorini, Rogers (Edozie 87′), Braaf. Subs (not used): Bazunu, McAtee, Hodge, Egan-Riley.

GOAL: Fiorini (11).

FULHAM U18s (4-3-1-2): Las; Drameh, Odutayo, McAvoy, Murphy; Carvalho, Page, O’Neill (Biereth 83); Jasper; Stansfield, Tiehi (Ablade 56). Subs (not used): Chisholm, Bowat, Williams, Pajaziti.

Can Fulham sustain an automatic promotion push?

Before Christmas it seemed absurd to ask whether Scott Parker could mastermind an immediate return to the Premier League for Fulham through the automatic promotion positions, but a combination of the Whites’ fine winter form and wobbles from both West Brom and Leeds makes the idea far less fanciful these days. Fulham still seem a long way from their fluent best – even if the first half an hour against Huddersfield last weekend was arguably as close as they have come this season – but they are beginning to breathe down the necks of the Championship’s current top two.

Parker’s side are in the perfect position to hunt down West Brom and Leeds, who have led the way for much of the season. The Baggies still top the table but have not been pulling up any trees for much of January, whilst Leeds’ woes have been well documented in recent weeks. Fulham might be back in the automatic promotion positions as soon as February 15th if results go their way. Leeds, who have lost two of their last three games, have tricky away trips to high-flying Nottingham Forest and Brentford coming up, and it could be argued that Fulham are hitting their stride at just the right time.

The first team squad has been hit heavily by injuries this season, but there is a sense that key players are returning at just the right time. Aleksandar Mitrovic came back from his ankle ligament problem quicker than anticipated – marking the occasion with a goal against Huddersfield – and there’s no doubt that Fulham are far more threatening proposition with him in the side. Parker’s defence might also be even more miserly once he can regularly pair new loan signing Terence Kongolo with Michael Hector, who has enjoyed a great start to life at Craven Cottage.

The current optimism is distinctly different to how things looked before the visit of Leeds to capital on 21 December. Fulham were twelve points behind Marcelo Bielsa’s men then and looked in danger of slipping out of the play-off picture altogether. What has changed since then? Parker has highlighted his side’s ability to grind out results – with five wins coming by just a single goal over the last couple of months – but Fulham have also mixed things up. They were far more direct against Leeds than they had been in the preceding fixtures as there was a steely edge to their play in the narrow win at Hull City recently as well.

Character comes into it too. Many supporters lamented our second half lethargy against Huddersfield where the Terriers penned Fulham back for long periods and peppered the home goal with shots. Yes, the second half felt like a completely different contest to the one where Fulham were dominating proceedings and appeared able to score at well, but the Whites reacted well to adversity. Marek Rodak, who has been crucial in the recent upturn in form, made some sensational saves and the impressive Hector put his body on the line to prevent the visitors from completing a remarkable comeback.

down to the ability to be able to grind out results, and with five wins coming by just the one goal over the past two months, its hard to disagree with the Fulham manager. the recent capability to be able to gain three points where perhaps earlier in the season we might of only have held on one has been crucial in trying to get a spot back in the premier league. The best example of this has to be our 3-2 victory over Huddersfield Town, after conceding the second it seemed written in the stars that Huddersfield would go on and get there third, but brilliant displays from Rodak Hector McDonald and the whole team made sure we left the Cottage with 3 points instead of 1 and put us in prime position to break into the top two.

It is important not to get too far ahead of ourselves. Saturday’s opponents Blackburn Rovers, managed by the wily Tony Mowbray, are unbeaten in their last four and will prove obstinate opposition at Ewood Park. They absolutely demolished Sheffield Wednesday 5-0 and showed real spirit to withstand a barrage of late Middlesbrough pressure to claim a point at the Riverside last weekend. Hot on the heels of that trip to Lancashire will be a tasty derby against upwardly mobile Millwall and nobody should need reminding that Barnsley sprung a surprise on the opening day of the season at Oakwell.

Consistency is a precious commodity in a league as unpredictable as the Championship. Fulham have shown signs of being able to battle through and pick up precious results in the past few weeks – they now need to take advantage of the momentum that strong run has generated and pile even more pressure on the top two.