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Blackburn lining up Johansen move

Blackburn Rovers are ready to try and hijack QPR’s pursuit of Fulham midfielder Stefan Johansen, according to a Lacanshire Evening Telegraph report this morning.

Rovers have lost four central midfielders during the close season and have revived their longstanding interest in former Norwegian captain Johansen. The 31 year-old was on Tony Mowbray’s radar in January but the former Celtic midfielder opted to make the short switch to Shepherd’s Bush in search of first team football after having seen his opportunities limited under Scott Parker.

Parker’s departure for Bournemouth this week might impact on Johansen’s immediate Fulham future, with the Whites now rumoured to be close to appointing Marco Silva as their new manager. Johansen has proven his ability in the Championship, having been part of two Fulham play-off winning squads, and may well be reintegrated into the Craven Cottage squad after returning to pre-season training.

Rangers haven’t given up hope of signing Johansen permanently after his impressive loan spell at the Kiyan Prince Foundation Stadium, where he scored three goals in 21 appearances as QPR finished the season strongly. Negotiations between the two local rivals stalled whilst Fulham finalised Parker’s exit and the Whites have been playing handball, demanding a fee that reflects Johansen’s ability and enduring value – as the experienced midfielder still has a year left on his current contract.

The revival of Rovers’ interest in the energetic midfielder might spark a bidding war that could raise any transfer fee should Fulham be minded to allow Johansen to leave. The Cottage cult hero has made 136 appearances in five years in SW6, scoring 21 goals. He formed a swashbuckling triumvirate alongside former Blackburn midfielder Tom Cairney and Kevin McDonald in Slavisa Jokanovic’s watchable side that won promotion in 2018/2019.

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

Cairney curler sets Fulham on their way

A sublime strike from skipper from Tom Cairney against his former club set Fulham on their way to their first Championship victory of the season as the Whites beat Blackburn Rovers 2-0 at Craven Cottage this afternoon.

Cairney’s audacious curler from 25 yards gave Scott Parker’s side a half-time lead that Fulham barely merited, given a nervous start and the fact that Blackburn produced a far better display than during their opening day defeat to newly-promoted Charlton. The hosts had their own poor start to rectify following a lamentable reverse at Barnsley and the assured debut of new signing Harry Arter added a bit of bite and mobility to a midfield that had been far too passive at Oakwell.

There still enough signs of sloppiness to frustrate Parker in an error-strewn opening, however. Rovers might have taken the lead inside the first twenty seconds when Bradley Johnson steered an inviting cross from Adam Armstrong wide of Marcus Bettinelli’s goal. The dangerous Bradley Dack had a low drive deflected fractionally wide in a bright Blackburn opening and Arter had to produce a desperate block with Johnson ready to pounce at the back post after a neat move down the right.

The closest Aleksandar Mitrovic, who looked a forlorn figure at the heart of the Fulham attack again in the early stages, got to making an impression was at the wrong end when he skied a clearance over his own crossbar. Fulham threatened in fits and starts with Anthony Knockaert, on his first start for the Cottagers, looking the most likely source of an opportunity as he cut in from the right flank. Toison Adarabioyo blocked his low cross-cum-shot, but the French winger’s energy seemed to lift his team-mates.

Fulham fashioned a pairing of decent chances in the space of two minutes. Mitrovic outmuscled two Blackburn defenders to surge up to the edge of the box, but slashed a shot wide, before Knockaert drove dangerously into the box himself and dragged his own effort wide. Knockaert then had a goalbound shot blocked and Mitrovic’s ambitious overhead kick flew harmlessly wide.

The home side were working up a head of steam but Cairney’s opening strike still came somewhat out of the blue. There appeared little danger as Arter was faced by two defenders 25 yards from goal, but the on-loan Bournemouth midfielder did brilliantly to feed Cairney, who had enough time to pick his spot and beautifully found the top corner with a trademark left-footed effort from range.

Blackburn, to their credit, still pushed forwards before the break. Armstrong’s clever movement was causing some serious problems for a Fulham back four that continues to look frail, with Sam Gallagher flicking a header wide from an Elliott Bennett cross. Tony Mowbray’s men had been more than a match for their hosts in the first half and could justifiably consider themselves unfortunate to be behind.

Parker has continued to ask his side to play out from the back, but the Whites haven’t found their feet in that respect. Wayward passes created problems at Barnsley and Blackburn had clearly been taking notes as Dack pounced on a poor ball to send Armstrong clear, but the forward’s shot flew wide of the far post with Bettinelli stranded.

There were a few defensive jitters at the other end, too. Ivan Cavaleiro looked the favourite to gallop around Christian Walton before Bennett intervened and, shortly afterwards, Arter drilled a sighter wide from the edge of the box. Fulham were getting a bit more joy from their attacks as the second half progressed – with one swift counter-attack culminating in Knockaert curling a left-footed strike fractionally wide as he darted into the box.

Mowbray threw on a couple of forwards in search of a spark and Rovers almost found one when Gallagher did well to drift between Alfie Mawson and Tim Ream but sent a looping header wide. But the visitors’ ambition left more space at the back, something ruthlessly exploited by Joe Bryan’s surging run from left back that finished the contest with nine minutes to play.

Bryan, whose dreadful effort had led to Barnsley’s opening last week, galloped more than 50 yards with the ball at his feet and then had the presence of mind to square for Mitrovic as a retreating Rovers’ defence closed in – leaving the former Newcastle front man a simple finish from close range.

A third would have been exceedingly harsh on Mowbray’s side but Bobby Decordova-Reid really should have marked an encouraging cameo with a debut goal. Bettinelli went route one from a goalkick and Decordova-Reid, a deadline-day arrival from Cardiff City, gambled to reach Mitrovic’s flick but then contrived to shoot wide from eight yards with only Walton to beat.

FULHAM (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Odoi, Bryan, Mawson, Ream; Arter, Johansen (Decordova-Reid 62), Cairney; Knockaert (Le Marchand 84), Cavaleiro (Reed 79), Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Rodak, Christie, McDonald, Ayite.

GOALS: Cairney (35), Mitrovic (81).

BLACKBURN ROVERS (4-2-3-1): Walton; Bennett, Bell (Downing 71), Adarabioyo, Williams; Johnson, Travis (Graham 74); Rothwell (Brereton 65), Armstrong, Dack; Gallagher. Subs (not used): Leutwiler, Platt, C. Evans, Buckley.

BOOKED: Johnson, Bennett.

REFEREE: Keith Stroud (Bournemouth).

ATTENDANCE: 17,987.

Was this Fulham’s Blackburn 2001 moment?

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Fulham’s last successful ascent from this level of English football is remembered for a dramatic April away win secured by ten men with a late, late goal. Making direct parallels between the night that Sean Davis saw off Blackburn back in 2001 and yesterday’s impressive dismantling of Norwich City might be stretching the link too far – but the central point remains, gutsy backs-to-the-wall wins away from home are what gets you out of the Championship, and Slavisa Jokanovic’s side answered a big question about their character at Carrow Road this weekend.

The Serbian himself said afterwards that there would be ‘no surrender’ in the race for a play-off place and his words were merely a stirring reinstatement of what the team had just delivered. No matter that Fernando Forrestieri had sneaked a late winner past Cardiff City at Hillsborough or that Newcastle conceded a last-gasp equaliser at home to Leeds – getting three points in adversity against a side who had lost just three times at home all season sent out a real statement to the Championship’s top six. Fired up by an what appeared an unjust red card (for Rufus Brevett at Ewood Park, read Chris Martin on his old stomping ground), Fulham’s ten men battled brilliantly – and produced a far more complete footballing performance than anyone could have envisaged at half time.

There have been a lot of criticisms of Jokanovic’s decision to hand Tom Cairney the captain’s armband. He’s not a natural leader, they said – the same sort of allusion to British bulldog spirit that was thrown at David Beckham when he took over the England captaincy. Some leaders don’t have to cajole and wave their arms around histrionically, they just lead by example. Cairney did that yesterday. He was everywhere – causing the Canaries all manner of problems and leading poor old Alex Tettey on a merry dance through the centre of midfield – and, when the Whites were given a penalty at the start of the second half, who stepped up to end the spot-kick hoodoo? That’s right. Cairney dispatched it with a coolness that belied what must have been a beating heart – and gave Fulham precious breathing space.

Jokanovic’s tactical decisions need saluting here as well. In the absence of Chris Martin, most managers would have opted for a big man up top – in the form of Cyriac or Lucas Piazon – but that would have gone against the Fulham head coach’s possession philosophy. His side have kept the ball at close quarters all season with a brilliance that has seen football correspondents claim they are the Championship’s Barcelona and, such is the confidence the players have in the plan, Jokanovic was loathe to rip it up in fifteen minutes. He pushed Floyd Ayite on as a lone forward and the man whose goals have reignited the Whites’ play-off bid rose to the challenge. Ayite charged across the Norwich back line and carried the ball forward with purpose – his willing running creating the greater chances for Fulham than their opponents. When Jokanovic did introduce Piazon, the pair combined magnificently for the clinching third goal.

Tim Ream’s presence on the teamsheet since the turn of the year has prompted some fierce debate and the American has picked up his far share of stick as one of the latest scapegoats, but he was a colossus at the heart of the defence yesterday. Time and time again, Norwich floated high balls into the box and Ream repelled them with excellent clearing headers. During a period where Fulham were under immense pressure, Ream’s ability to play a clever pass out of the back proved invaluable and, although Tomas Kalas has received most of the plaudits this season, the former Bolton centre back’s contribution to a crucial win shouldn’t be understated.

Neither should that of Marcus Bettinelli. The academy graduate has had to wait an awful long time for his chance in the first team – especially following a succession of David Button blunders – but he has taken his opportunity with both hands. Bettinelli’s distribution with his feet, apparently the reason the ex-Brentford goalkeeper was preferred at the start of the season in what Jokanovic concedes was ‘a very difficult decision,’ was exemplary yesterday and he came up with massive saves as the Canaries ramped up the pressure. Just how he clawed away Timm Klose’s header before half time I don’t quite know – and he two made excellent stops to deny Jacob Murphy and Alex Pritchard as well. The home fans were incensed by Bettinelli’s perceived time-wasting – a special shout-out to the Norwich supporter who thought it appropriate to aggressively┬álambast the goalkeeper and scare the little Fulham mascot trying to get her shirt signed after the final whistle – but any gamesmanship from the visitors paled in comparison to what Reading, Sheffield Wednesday and Burton Albion, to name just three, have got away with at Craven Cottage this season.

Such a commanding victory leaves Fulham in a terrific position, with Wednesday, Reading and Leeds in all their sights ahead of another crucial clash with Aston Villa on Easter Monday. The magnitude of the win was recognised at full time when Cairney, in another moment that enhanced his leadership credentials, took the whole squad over to the travelling supporters. He was soon followed by a passionate Jokanovic who, in a rare outward show of that raw Serbian passion, clenched his fists in delight as he thanked the travelling 1,500 Fulham fans. Far from being bottlers, Fulham are keeping their composure at just the right time to make the Championship run-in very interesting indeed.