The Championship play-offs feature four very good teams this season and it is difficult to predict who will claim the final promotion place in a few weeks’ time. Fulham are the favourites with the bookies after they managed to go on a late run of form to overtake Leeds United and clinch a play-off place. They are set to face Reading in the first of the two semi-finals. Although the Royals have gone under the radar this season, they deserve respect as they finished in third position, only eight behind the automatic promotion places.
Slavisa Jokanovic has done an excellent job at Craven Cottage since taking over mid-way through last season. It was an ambitious appointment at the time as he had just earned a promotion with Watford, but the board at Fulham clearly believed that they could compete at that level before too long. They changed approach during the summer as they saw both Moussa Dembele and Ross McCormack leave the club. Many thought that they would be a big miss to the side, but the switch to an analytics-based approach has meant that the Cottagers have gone from strength-to-strength and fared much better without them. They have played some of the best football in the division this season and ended with the joint-highest goals scored (85), alongside Newcastle United and Norwich City.
Despite finishing in third place, Reading are being written off before the play-offs have even begun. That is unfair, as they recorded more wins than the rest of the teams that make up the play-off positions. Jaap Stam has done a fine job in his first managerial post and his winning mentality has clearly rubbed off on the players. The stats suggest that they are the weakest of the four teams, but there is clearly something going right at the Madejski Stadium and it would be foolish to rule them out. They keep the ball very well and are excellent at managing a game after taking the lead. Interestingly, they have four wins in their six matches against the other play-off teams, including a 1-0 victory over Fulham earlier this season.
Fulham closed the season in great form and are the form team heading into the play-offs. They won six of their last eight matches, including victories over Huddersfield Town and Sheffield Wednesday. Jokanovic obviously believes that momentum is important as he opted against resting a lot of players on the final day of the season and he was rewarded with a win over fellow play-off hopeful Wednesday.
Reading finished the season in similarly impressive form and these two are the teams with lots of momentum coming into the battle to reach the Premier League. They won seven of their last nine matches and recorded a crucial win over Leeds United. If they had lost on that day, it could have been them that had fallen out of the top six. Their ability to win the big games shows the impressive mentality that has been coached by Stam. Their final game was a 4-2 win away to Burton, which helped them clinch third position.
Jokanovic played a strong team in their final match of the league season and he should put out a similar line-up on Saturday. The only change could be Stefan Johansen coming in for Lucas Piazon, which would allow Tom Cairney to push up to the number ten position.
Like their hosts, Reading won’t make many changes to the team that ended the season at Burton. They will likely stick to the 5-3-2 formation, but Garath McCleary will start if he is passed fit. Joseph Mendes would be the player to drop out.
Ragnar Sigurdsson and Michael Madl will both be missing for the first leg as both have leg injuries. It is unlikely they will be back for the second leg either.
Garath McCleary and Paul McShane are both battling to be passed fit for the match at Craven Cottage. It would be a blow if either missed out as they are key to this Reading team.
Match Prediction: Fulham 3-1 Reading
The corresponding fixture in the league ended in a 5-0 home win. It is unlikely to be so one-sided on this occasion as the play-offs are a completely different environment. Reading have more experience in the play-offs, with this being Fulham’s first time in them since 1997-98. There should be goals and entertainment for the neutral, as these two both have great attacks and shaky defences. Given they have the home advantage, Fulham will be dominant as they have been in most of their matches this season. They should take an important first-leg lead on Saturday.
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