Marcelo Djalo was delighted to make his league debut for Fulham at Craven Cottage on Saturday – and help Slavisa Jokanovic’s side extend their unbeaten run by repelling Millwall’s aerial assault as a second half substitute.
The Spanish centre back, who had featured in the League Cup earlier this morning, got his first taste of Championship action when he replaced Neeskens Kebano with twelve minutes to play as Fulham sought to hold onto the lead given to them on the stroke of half-time by Ollie Norwood’s penalty. Djalo told the club’s official website that he’ll never forget the experience:
For me it was amazing to play for this club, on this pitch, in this shirt. It’s incredible, and I’m very happy because for me it was the first time playing here in the Championship. It’s amazing.
The situation was not easy because they had more strikers, more long balls. This can be a more nervous situation for all the players, and I think these three points are very, very vital. The team is very happy with this win.
The 23 year-old, a summer signing from Spanish second division side Club Deportivo Lugo, revealed that head coach Jokanovic has been boosting the belief among the Fulham squad.
The Gaffer is always very positive. The message to the team is be confident, play our style, and be competitive. It’s a good three points, a very, very important win.
The team is feeling strong. We’re going to train hard and be focused, because every game is very important for us. When you win, everything is better. We have to keep going in this moment, the season is very long so we have to keep going, keep going, match by match.
I’m not sure how you would work it out, but the Championship has to be one of the toughest leagues in Europe. It is ultra competitive, as we saw yesterday with a direct Millwall side posing Fulham plenty of problems, and anybody stands a chance of beating anyone else (I give you Burton’s victory over Slavisa Jokanovic’s side in September). There’s also the sheer weight and frequency of the fixtures that mean injuries and suspensions can prove very costly – and the stakes are so high that the pressure is intense.
Perhaps that’s why after the reverse at Wolves a couple of weeks ago there were those amongst the Fulham fanbase who were giving serious consideration to the idea of ditching Slavisa Jokanovic. Dan wrote at the time that he felt that was madness – and I haven’t spoken to a match-going fan who can come with a reason why the Serbian should be sacked – but, as the men who count the money never tire of telling us, football is a business now. And, to borrow a phrase from West Brom’s statement when they ran a mile from the odious Tony Pulis, it’s a ‘results-based’ one these days. If Jokanovic, who came so close to leading Fulham out at Wembley after that unbelievable end to last season, doesn’t manage to inspire some sort of promotion push than a parting of the ways could come at the end of the season.
But this week has shown us that dismissing the man who has got Fulham playing the best football since Craven Cottage witnessed Jean Tigana’s French revolution would be as big a mistake as, say, employing a stats fanatic with no experience in English football, as your assistant director of football. The Serbian certainly hasn’t become a bad coach overnight and Fulham’s prospects of reaching the Championship play-offs look an awful lot better after the Whites picked up seven points in a week where they hosted one of the promotion contenders, travelled to the league’s early pacesetters and won a thriller and then beat Millwall for the first time at this level since before Margaret Thatcher took up residence in Downing Street.
Jokanovic also tells us whether he can satisfied or not after each Fulham performance. It always reminds me of the pained high school teacher during parents’ evening trying to tell parents that their beloved boy or girl isn’t the angel they envisaged. Fulham’s head coach is such a stickler for the standards he set in his own playing career that he’s rarely ‘satisfied’ – and the last two games provided good examples of this. After the almost coronary-inducing end to that goalfest in south Yorkshire, Jokanovic told the press that, whilst it might have been a great game to watch for the fans, he’d have preferred a much less stressful evening.
The fear was always that Fulham, who looked like they could score at will when going forward at Bramall Lane, would grant the coach his wish – or wise – by struggling to break down a stubborn Millwall side. You could tell by the way some in the Hammersmith End began booing as Fulham nearly played themselves into trouble at the back that some fans felt Neil Harris’s men should be swept aside in an instant. That’s the danger of the sublime football we saw last season – those sort of standards are incredibly hard to maintain, especially when your opponents have had a whole pre-season to mug up on the things you do well.
People should also recognise that Fulham were markedly weaker yesterday than when they took the field in south Yorkshire. Tim Ream – undoubtedly Fulham’s most improved player during Jokanovic’s time at the club – was missing after succumbing to a knock picked up against the Blades. Denis Odoi, who had been an excellent left back against Derby and Sheffield United, reprised his central half role from Reading and Leeds. Kevin McDonald, arguably the most pivotal performer during last season’s surge to the play-offs, was missing from the base of the midfield and Stefan Johansen, promoted from the bench to the starting line-up, lasted only 45 minutes. Floyd Ayite’s hamstring injury is likely to get him out until much closer to Christmas at the very least.
In the circumstances, Fulham coped well with an aerial bombardment from a Millwall side who were desperate to end their six-game winless streak. On another day, the Whites could easily have been punished for allowing Tom Elliott two free headers inside the penalty area – one thudded against the far post – and affording the silky George Saville the freedom of Hammersmith and Fulham at times in the second half. There were plenty of hairy moments, not least when Aboubakar Kamara made a clumsy challenge inside the penalty area during stoppage time, but Fulham ground out an important home win for only the second time this season.
They perhaps should have made their possession count earlier in proceedings. Sheyi Ojo, cruelly mocked for that ‘go faster’ hairdo by the excellent travelling supporters, wasn’t quite as clinical as in Sheffield but he has certainly shown why Fulham were so pleased to conclude that loan deal with Liverpool. A moment of magic, when he decided to try and chip Jordan Archer from outside the box seemingly because nothing else was on, almost put the Whites ahead and his movement and willing running injected energy into the hosts’ play. Having Tom Cairney pulling the strings makes such a difference – twice two sumptuous through balls might have released Ojo and Neeksens Kebano, but Archer and Shaun Hutchinson just about snuffed out the danger.
Harris was convinced there was an element of fortune about the award of the penalty, but Conor McLaughlin clearly pulled back Rui Fonte, who had struggled to get much change out of the Millwall defence until that point. Given the baffling penalties that Fulham have seen awarded against them – the phantom penalty at Burton still sticks in my mind – you could understand Jokanovic’s bullishness on that point after the final whistle. He won’t have been happy at how Fulham ceded the initative in the second half, even if both Kamara and Tayo Edun showed both an appetite for the fight and an aptitude at this level that might lead to more first-team outings over the festive period.
Fulham’s lowly league position has been caused by a failure to bank points in August and September unlike the early pace setters. They’ve struggled to break down resolute defences at Craven Cottage and, as a result, only just climbed back into the top half of the table. Few would have expected seven points from a home game against Derby, who demolished Middlesbrough yesterday to move into six, a midweek trip to Sheffield United and a south London derby. The manner of this scrappy and yet gutsy three points was almost more important. It showed Fulham have the stomach for a fight.
Slavisa Jokanovic was delighted that his Fulham side ended their six game winless run with a victory over in-form Sheffield United at Bramall Lane tonight – but believes his side could have made things more comfortable for themselves.
The Whites were left clinging to the slenderest of advantages in the dying embers of stoppage time having led 5-2 at one stage – and Jokanovic described the ninety minutes as ‘a crazy game’. He lauded his players for being brave enough to attack the Blades at pace and pose real problems for one of the Championship’s best sides, but pointed to sloppy defensive mistakes that put the victory in doubt.
Speaking to the press after a pulsating encounter in south Yorkshire, the Serbian head coach said:
It was a crazy game. It was great entertainment for the supporters, a little bit less for us! We needed a victory after some games where we didn’t play at a good enough level. We must be satisfied with three points, and now we keep moving forward.
We tried to attack them where in the past they have tried to attack teams. We found space, we played with fast players, they found this space very well and they showed their quality to finish the chances we created. I think we caused more problems and damage than they did. At the end of the day, there’s only one goal difference, I feel we deserved a little bit more of a comfortable victory, but they’re one of the best Championship teams and I must be satisfied.
Jokanovic was critical of how easy Leon Clarke found it to notch another Championship hat-trick, bemoaning the poor defensive mistakes that allowed the Blades back into a contest that had seemed cut and dried.
We tried to stop their centre-backs overlapping, we tried to stop them getting many people in our box. They found some space between our lines and did some damage. For the first, second and third goals I didn’t think they did enough to score them, but in the end it’s our fault they scored four goals and we need to be more solid. We cannot expect to score five goals to win a game.
The Fulham head coach was full of praise for how the home side kept going in adversity and the way in which his opposite number Chris Wilder changed the contest late on.
Sheffield United are a team in great form. They are full of confidence, they are a fast and strong team who play with energy to win games. They are only recently promoted from League One, but they are one of the realistic candidates to be a Premier League team next season, and so you have to respect the coach and the team for what they’re doing this season.
It must have had something to do with the return of Brian McBride. Fulham, so lethargic and feeble in the first half as Preston North End’s mesmerising football saw them score twice in seven minutes, were gradually awakened once Tom Cairney was reunited with Kevin McDonald in central midfield. Slavisa Jokanovic’s side gained real belief when Oliver Norwood stepped up to score from the spot but, despite relentless pressure, an equalised looked out of reach until the previously faultless Chris Maxwell juggled Tim Ream’s deep cross and Denis Odoi pounced. An injury-time equaliser hasn’t been so wildly celebrated at the Hammersmith End since Cairney’s majestic curler that precipitated Leeds’ laughable slump to seventh place.
That Fulham’s salvation arrived in the 96th minute greatly exercised Alex Neil, who remonstrated with the home fans behind the dugout when they grew tired of Preston’s cynicism. The former Hamilton Accies boss was adamant that Darren England, who appeared to have left his yellow card in the Cottage during the first half, should have blown up after the five indicated minutes. As Neil reflects on how Preston, who looked so sublime with a combination of pace and unremitting pressing, squandered such a dominate position, he would do well to remember that, without the gamemanship that crept into North End’s game, the added time would not have mattered.
The visitors were vibrant from the off, with Tom Barkhuizen almost punishing a short back header from Tim Ream, but David Button scampered off his line. Barkhuizen sent a free header wide from Daniel Johnson’s cross, before a sixty-second spell that summed up the fine margins of the Championship. Fulham, who had gone close through Norwood and Rui Fonte, looked certain take the lead when Ryan Sessegnon athletically evaded a late lunge from Callum Woods and saw his cross parried away from Marshall, but the Preston something beat away Norwood’s strike with his right hand with Floyd Ayite’s acrobatics only troubling the Putney End spectators.
Preston went straight down the other end and scored. Sean Maguire was a yard offside when Ben Pearson’s pass sent him clear and the Irish forward made the most of his good fortune by supplying Jordan Hugill for his sixth goal of the season. Fulham were in shock and, after Norwood was played in trouble, Alan Browne should have made it two after being played in by Johnson’s clever pass but Button bailed out his side with a smart save.
The home side’s reprieve was short-lived. Barkhuizen found it far too easy to cut inside Ream and fire at goal from the edge of the box, with Button beaten by the deftest of deflections off Maguire. The former Cork City forward soon made an early departure, limping off clutching his hamstring, but the game followed largely the same pattern. Preston looked like they could score at will, with Browne nearly punishing a miscued Button clearance with an outrageous lob from 40 yards that brought former North End loanee David Beckham to mind. At times it seemed as though Kevin McDonald was the only man in a white shirt as he appeared to be covering each blade of grass. The midfielder was denied just before the break by another splendid save from Maxwell.
McDonald was still imperious in the second period but Fulham were fired up by Jokanovic’s own version of the hairdryer and 45 minutes from Cairney, who is clearly still working his way back from that knee injury. The hosts began at quite a pace with Fonte fizzing a 20-yarder fractionally over the bar and when McDonald bent a beautiful effort past Maxwell but saw it come back off the post there was a sense that this might just be one of those days.
Former Manchester United midfielder Josh Harrop spurned a couple of good chances in quick succession, but Fulham were gradually gaining momentum.
Fonte, who had pulled Preston’s centre halves from pillar to post in a desperate bid to get Fulham back into a game that appeared beyond them got his reward for persistence when another intelligent run was spotted by Ayite and some swift footwork enticed Woods to make an ill-advised lunge at the ball. It was a clear penalty, but the drama came after the award. Fonte wasn’t entirely keen to take it following his miss at Loftus Road and Floyd Ayite found himself with the ball in hand, but Norwood intervened and coolly converted the spot-kick, sending Maxwell the wrong way with real confidence.
Norwood kept finding himself in advanced positions. His snapshot from 20 yards almost embarrassed Maxwell, who grabbed it at the second attempt, but the Northern Ireland midfielder looked certain to provide the equaliser in the final minute of the ninety, when Cairney’s lofted pass located Odoi well forward on the right. The Belgian’s header back across was begging to tucked home from close range but Norwood failed to get a telling touch, ending up in the net instead of the ball. Maxwell stayed down for an age clutching first his head and then his knee, neither of which felt the impact of Norwood’s challenge and there was some irony, therefore, in the Welshman’s eventual clanger. With what seemed destined Fulham’s final throw of the dice, Marshall came charged out to collect Ream’s cross and spilled it at the feet of Odoi, who made the matter of finding the net look ridiculously easy.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Button; Odoi, R. Sessegnon, Kalas, Ream; McDonald, Norwood, Johansen (Mollo 71); Ayite, Kebano (Cairney 45), Fonte. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Soares, Djalo, Cisse, Graham.
GOALS: Norwood (pen 74), Odoi (90+6).
PRESTON NORTH END (4-3-3): Maxwell, Woods, Earl, Huntington, Davies; Pearson (Welsh 59), Johnson; Barkhuizen (Robinson 71), Browne, Maguire (Harrop 30), Hugill. Subs (not used): Boyle, Vermijl, Mavididi, Hudson.
BOOKED: Earl, Johnson.
GOALS: Hugill (18), Maguire (25).
REFEREE: Darren England (Barnsley)