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Mitrovic double demolishes QPR

In this sort of mood, Aleksandar Mitrovic is unplayable. The imposing Serbian centre forward delivered a display of classical hold up play and penalty area ruthlessness to take this lunchtime’s west London derby decisively away from Queens Park Rangers, just when Mark Warburton’s men appeared poised to profit from further Fulham complacency. The Whites, who looked so formidable in August, had been punished for taking their foot off the gas at Coventry before the international break and, after substitute Lyndon Dykes had cancelled out Mitrovic’s thumping opener, more frustration seemed in store for Marco Silva’s side. But Mitrovic restored Fulham’s advantage with a superb header – and the hosts ended up romping away from their local rivals.

The number nine was critical to both of Fulham’s previous promotions from the Championship – providing the missing link for Slavisa Jokanovic’s side when joining on loan from Newcastle and becoming a regular source of goals under Scott Parker. His absence from Parker’s struggling team last season might have brought the curtain down on his Craven Cottage career but Silva’s return to English football and the adoption of an adventurous approach to an immediate return to the top flight has seen the side constructed around Mitrovic’s considerable talents. With Jean-Michael Seri imperious in the engine room and Tom Cairney fit enough to be named amongst the substitutes, things are looking up at London’s oldest professional football club.

Fulham made a bright start to what felt like a crucial derby, pinging passes through the midfield and penning Rangers back. Mitrovic opened the scoring after ten minutes with a goal that showcased all of his ability. Seri, who sparkled throughout from his deep-lying playmaker position, began a flowing move with a glorious switch of play out to Neeskens Kebano on the right. Denis Odoi galloped forward from full back and delivered a deep cross to the back post. Mitrovic held off Rob Dickie easily to bring the ball under spell and rifled a low drive between Seny Dieng and the near post.

The hosts might have had further goals before the break. Dieng did brilliantly to deny Mitrovic twice in quick succession from Harry Wilson’s corner, before Dickie denied the former Newcastle forward an almost certain second with a saving challenge after a superb run down the right flank from the Welsh winger. Rangers offered little as an attacking force, with Charlie Austin blazing over from the edge of the area, but can within a whisker of equalising just before the equaliser when Chris Willock clipped the outside of the far post after being brilliantly picked out by Moses Odubajo.

Fulham made a fast start to the second period, but Dieng did well to spread himself and deny Kebano after the winger had raced onto a lovely through ball from Harrison Reed and Rangers, who had more firepower up front after Dykes had replaced Dominic Ball during the interval, found an equaliser nine minutes after half time. Odoi criminally surrendered possession, giving Willock time and space to run at the Fulham defence and the former Arsenal midfielder threaded a through ball between the hosts’ retreating centre halves. Dykes darted around the stranded Marek Rodak and lifted in the equaliser that suddenly had the game in the balance.

Silva, who had already lost Ivan Cavaleiro to injury in the first half, was forced into another alteration in the aftermath of the goal as Joe Bryan had collided painfully with both the post and Tim Ream in a desperate attempt to block Dykes’ finish. Fulham had wilted alarmingly from a similar position at Coventry a fortnight ago, but Harrison Reed was determined to drag his team-mates forward. He clapped his hands and bellowed encouragement after the Rangers equaliser and took matters into his own hands shortly afterwards, surging into a shooting position some 35 yards from goal and his low shot was narrowly off target.

Antonee Robinson seized the opportunity to impress after replacing Bryan and raced down the left flank to add impetus to another Fulham attack. The American international released the ball intelligently for Kebano, who checked onto his right foot and floated a delicious ball for Mitrovic to attack. The Serbian cleverly manoeuvred Jordy de Wijs out of the way with his arm before brilliantly looping a header over Dieng and into the net via the far post. It took just four minutes for Fulham to find breathing space when a sumptuous pass from Seri released Bobby Decordova-Reid, whose accurate finish across Dieng made it three.

The Rangers goalkeeper saved well from Kebano, whose lively display down the left probably merited a goal of his own, but had no such luck in injury time when Robinson’s speculative strike from long range took a hefty deflection off de Wijs, leaving him completely stranded. Fulham’s strong finish looked unlikely after Dykes’ leveller, but was a welcome reward for a much-needed display of the sort of character necessary to tackle the unpredictability of the Championship.

FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Rodak; Odoi, Bryan (Robinson 58), Adarabioyo, Ream; Reed, Seri; Kebano, Cavaleiro (Decordova-Reid 32), Wilson (Chalobah 77); Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Gazzaniga, Mawson, Cairney, Muniz.

GOALS: Mitrovic (10, 67), Decordova-Reid (71), Robinson (90+1).

QUEENS PARK RANGERS (3-4-2-1): Dieng; Dickie, de Wijs, Barbet; Odubajo, McCallum (Dunne 66), Ball (Dykes 45), Johansen; Willock, Chair; Austin (Gray 69). Subs (not used): Archer, Amos, Adomah.

BOOKED: Ball, Johansen, Odubajo, Dunne.

GOAL: Dykes (54).

REFEREE: Oliver Langford (West Midlands).

ATTENDANCE: 18,371.

View from the opposition: QPR (h)

Massive thanks to QPR fan Matthew Drewett who gives us the Rangers lowdown ahead of tomorrow’s derby at Craven Cottage.

How do you feel Mark Warburton is doing as manager?

I think Warburton is the perfect manager for us in terms of helping our younger players to develop, mixing them in with an experienced group and keeping things competitive. He’s a great man manager.

What do you make of QPR’s start to the season?

It’s been a great start. I’m happy with the points tally so far – our defeats against Bournemouth and West Brom – who will both be up there this season – were respectable. The only disappointment was losing to Bristol City in a game that we should have won comfortably.

What’s a realistic aspiration for Rangers this year?

Getting into the play-off positions is realistic for us. If we can keep our top players fit and maintain our good form through the Christmas period and the second half of the season, I think we can get into the top six. On our day, we can beat anyone in this league.

What did you make of Stefan Johansen being given the captain’s armband after signing permanently this summer?

I think making Stefan Johansen captain was the correct decision. He is one of the squad’s most senior players and is very experienced at getting out of the Championship.

Who are QPR’s key players to watch tomorrow?

Chris Willock and Ilias Chair are the ones to watch. They have a great understanding with one another, finding each other and they can create great opportunities with the ball. They are both very talented footballers.

Finally, can you give us a score prediction for tomorrow?

I’m going for a 1-1 draw. This is going to be a tight game, tense at times and I don’t think there will be too many chances created. I think Mitrovic and Austin will get the goals – both are proven scores at this level.

Up next: QPR (h)

Local derbies don’t usually need hyping up. The fans can manage that all by themselves. But there’s probably a fair bit more riding on tomorrow lunchtime’s meeting with QPR for Marco Silva after Fulham’s stuttering September. The Whites were purring almost perfectly in August, with the early signs under their new boss looking particularly encouraging. But defeats by Blackpool, Reading – and right before the international break – a thrashing at Coventry, all the more galling after they had taken the lead, have all but ended the idea of the Cottagers being invincible in the Championship. The Whites will need to offer a serious response against Rangers tomorrow and their opponents are in form and full of confidence.

For the first time since they plunged out of the Premier League six years ago, things are on a fairly even keel in Shepherd’s Bush. The canny Mark Warburton, still criminally underrated at this level for my money, has been allowed the time to develop a side in his image and, crucially, this summer got the backing of the board to bring in a number of last season’s loan stars on a permanent basis. That includes Stefan Johansen, who will make his first return to Craven Cottage tomorrow, after five fabulous years of service in SW6. As befitting a Warburton side, Rangers play fine football which should make tomorrow’s clash particularly watchable and there are plenty of players to watch out for in the visiting line-up.

Lyndon Dykes, whose goals over the international break helped Scotland inch a little closer to World Cup qualification, has been something of a revelation since Warburton snapped him up from Livington for around £2m last August. Dykes has scored sixteen goals in 53 appearances for QPR and already formed a potent partnership with the experienced Charlie Austin, who returned to Rangers during the close season. If that’s not enough firepower, Andre Gray arrived from Watford on loan in the closing stages of the transfer market. The creativity on which those front men thrive is largely provided by two talented 23 year-old playmakers. Ilias Chair, the mercurial Moroccan who has seized his chance in the first team having made waves in the under 23s, has scored four times this season whilst Chris Willock, a clever capture from Arsenal, has been an ever-present in Warburton’s side this term, laying on two goals and scoring two more of his own.

Warburton’s side usually line up in an adventurous 3-4-3 system with a trio of ball-playing centre backs. Rob Dickie, the composed defender who Fulham watched regularly whilst he was with Oxford United, has made headlines for his own goalscoring exploits this term and typifies the way Rangers look to attack from the back. When we did our pre-season preview, I felt that the R’s had completed a summer of sensible transfer business and looked well-placed to push for promotion – and the first couple of months of the season have only strengthened that view. Rangers will give Silva’s side a thorough examination tomorrow.

Silva himself has a few questions to answer as he approaches his first local derby in charge. Fulham have been well below their fluent best for some time now. They might be mitigating circumstances – with international breaks disrupting the rhythm a new-look side had built up early in the season and the absence of key players through injury suspension, but with the wealth of talent that Fulham have at their disposal, those excuses can’t be tolerated for long. The composition of the central midfield trio has looked clunky for a few weeks with the Whites badly missing teenage sensation Fabio Carvalho as the classy number ten who gives opposing defences something other than Aleksandar Mitrovic to consider. The manager’s faith in Paulo Gazzaniga appears misplaced, too, with the Argentine looking woefully low on confidence in the damaging defeat at Coventry.

Today’s news that captain Tom Cairney is finally fit enough to return to the first team squad, having been absent since the draw with Newcastle last December, at least hints at the prospect of a bit of guile and creativity in a team that has been rather workmanlike without Carvalho in recent weeks. Teams have cottoned on to the fact that Harry Wilson is much easier to nullify by placing a second man in his general vicinity when the Welsh winger is stationed on the right – it hinders his ability to drift dangerously inside on his favoured left foot – and that some steel in the tackle can throw Fulham completely off their game. Fulham can’t afford to be a soft touch for much longer: the Whites are already playing catch up and a defeat when the bragging rights are at stake would prompt serious questions about Silva’s suitability for steering the side back to the top flight at the first time of asking, which was the reason why Shahid Khan hired him.

MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Rodak; Odoi, Bryan, Adarabioyo, Ream; Seri, Reed; Wilson, Kebano, Cairney; Mitrovic. Subs: Gazzaniga, Mawson, Robinson, Onomah, Chalobah, Decordova-Reid, Muniz.

Cairney set to face QPR

Fulham captain Tom Cairney could face Queens Park Rangers tomorrow after being passed fit for the local derby following a lengthy absence with persistent knee trouble.

The playmaker, who has been sidelined since last December having aggravated a knee injury during his first training session under new boss Marco Silva this summer, came through a full week of training this week and Silva confirmed that the 30 year-old will be in his squad for the lunchtime kick off at Craven Cottage. The Scottish international is likely to be amongst the substitutes.

Silva told his pre-match press conference earlier this afternoon:

“Tom Cairney will be involved. He’s ready. He needs some physical conditioning, but it’s good to see him with a smile on his face.”

Nathaniel Chalobah is also available again after missing the defeat at Coventry prior to the international break through injury, but Fabio Carvalho and Kenny Tete are not quite ready to return to first team action.

“Fabio will be back next week in my opinion. Kenny is training – and maybe we’ll have him back next week as well. But Chalobah is ready, and apart from the long journeys they took, all the internationals are back and in good condition.”

Johansen in dark on Fulham future

Stefan Johansen admits he is in the dark over his Fulham future after his successful loan spell at QPR came to an end.

The Norwegian international signed off with a goal as the R’s beat Luton Town 3-1 on the final day of the Championship campaign.

Johansen scored three goals and claimed two assists in 21 outings for Mark Warburton’s team after a January switch from Fulham.

“I don’t know what the situation is with me yet, that’s something to be decided,” said the former Celtic midfielder. “I have one more year on my contract at Fulham. Without doubt I can say how much I enjoyed my time here.”