Fulham and Reading will go into the second leg of their play-off semi-final on level terms as they played out a 1-1 draw on Saturday at Craven Cottage.
It was a high intensity game with both sides implanting a heavy press when out of possession. The two managers, Jaap Stam and Slavisa Jokanovic, are two of the best tactically in the division and that showed on Saturday.
The Cottagers were written about as the favourites to win the play-offs, but it won’t be easy for them to come out on top as this match showed.
Here are three things that we learnt…
Reading showed why they are a force to be reckoned with
The Royals haven’t fully been respected for the great season that they have had, with a number of Championship watchers being confused as to how they finished in third place.
Their league position should have meant that they came into the play-offs as the favourites to gain promotion, but Fulham and Sheffield Wednesday were favoured by the bookies.
Jaap Stam has been very impressive at managing in the big matches, with his preparation being mostly spot on. That was the case on Saturday as he produced a game-plan that nullified Fulham’s threat and restricted them to few chances in front of goal.
They managed to take the lead through Jordan Obita, who drilled a shot across Marcus Bettinelli to find the bottom corner. It was a deserved lead and it looked like the Royals would earn a precious away win.
Although they conceded an equaliser to Tom Cairney, they never once lost sight of their game-plan and stuck meticulously to the instructions given by Stam. These are a group of players that may not be the most talented in the division, but they are determined and hard-working, as shown by their impressive pressing and off-the-ball contributions.
Paul McShane’s sending off could have been a disaster, but they dealt well with it and saw the game out without conceding another goal. They have a great chance to make it to Wembley.
Tom Cairney is going to be in the top flight next season – with or without Fulham
The best players step up to the big occasion and Tom Cairney certainly did that with a superb display on Saturday. He has consistently been talked about as one of the best, if not the best, player in the Championship and he showed why against Reading.
The 26-year-old is the driving force of this Fulham team and he is the player that his team-mates look toward when things are not going to plan. It was not a surprise that he got the equaliser after some good movement and anticipation allowed him to score a poacher’s goal in the penalty area.
His passing is his best attribute as he rarely gives the ball away, as shown by his success rate of 88%. This is made even more impressive when you consider that he often has the ball in the attacking half of the pitch.
His ability to carry the ball allow him to excel in the transition phase and he is often the one who turns defence into attack with his powerful runs and eye for a pass. He completed four dribbles during the match at Craven Cottage and caused problems every time he got on the ball.
Fulham will need similar performances from their captain if they are to reach the Premier League. If they fail to do so, they will likely be forced to sell the midfielder as he has done enough to earn a chance in the top flight.
All is still to play for on Tuesday night at the Madejski Stadium
Despite the confidence of some Fulham fans that the tie could be over on Saturday, that wasn’t the case and there will be a new found respect for Reading as a result. The visitors played well to restrict the Cottagers and have shown that they can be a difficult team to break down.
However, the home side didn’t play to their potential and it could be that the pressure of being favourites had an effect on the players. They have been the chasers for the last few months as they tried to break into the top six.
The dynamics have now changed and they appeared to be weighed down by the pressure of being favourites on Saturday. Jokanovic needs to address that and get his team to reach their potential on Tuesday night, or another season in the Championship could await them.
The play-offs are as much a mental battle as they are a technical one. It can be daunting to play in the high-pressured environment and on this showing alone, it did look like Reading were better suited to that.
They may have attempted fewer shots during the match, but they got the result they needed and their defensive work was the reason for that. On Tuesday, they will be more attack-minded and their impressive home record will give them the confidence to do that.
This tie is on a knife-edge and there is all to play for on Tuesday night.
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