Reading beat Fulham on Tuesday night to confirm their place in the play-off final in little under two weeks.
They are only one match away from the Premier League and the belief is growing among the fan-base that they can get there.
Fulham were seen as the favourites to win promotion, but they will remain in the Championship for another season and that underlines how unpredictable the play-offs can be.
The game was decided by a penalty that was awarded for a handball by Tomas Kalas, which was duly converted by Yann Kermorgant.
Here are three things that we learnt from goings on at the Madjeski Stadium…
Reading stepped up and proved the doubters wrong
There have been doubters all season long and they were written off when the semi-final ties were decided, with few giving them a chance against Fulham. However, they fought hard and showed that they are a force to be reckoned with.
They had fewer shots and less possession than the Cottagers again, but that isn’t a bad thing. Jaap Stam knew that his side couldn’t outplay their opposition and designed a game-plan that would see them come out on top. In the play-offs, it is all about getting the job done in any way possible and the Royals certainly managed that.
They are the team that has come into the play-offs with little fanfare and have barely been talked about as potential winners. That will change now as they delivered impressive performances across the two legs.
The 3-5-2 formation worked a treat as they packed the midfield and restricted the space that the Fulham midfielders could operate in. Tom Cairney was shut down and across the two legs, Reading conceded only one goal to the joint-best attack in the Championship.
Stam’s men conceded the most goals in the top six during the regulation season, but they were well organised on Tuesday and that will have surprised Fulham. The Royals have every chance of making it to the Premier League.
Fulham didn’t learn from the first leg
Given that they were frustrated in the first-leg by the organisation and doggedness of Reading, it was a surprise that they didn’t offer more on Tuesday.
Throughout the regular season, Fulham were great to watch and full of ideas when on the pitch. They were excellent at adapting to the situation and finding a way to score goals, especially away from home.
Reading were always going to play a similar way and it was surprising that the Cottagers were lacklustre in attack once again. Slavisa Jokanovic replaced Chris Martin with Neeskens Kebano to add more pace to the attack, but it didn’t have the desired effect.
Fulham will be replaying this match for the next few months as they try to learn from the mistakes that they made. They didn’t play the free-flowing football that they were known for throughout the Championship season and it could be that they couldn’t cope with being favourites.
It is a huge change going from chasing the top six to being the bookies favourites for promotion and that could have been a factor in their elimination. That said, Reading were excellent and deserved to progress. The Cottagers need to take the positives from this season and come back stronger for the experience in August.
Ali Al Habsi proved his worth to the Reading cause
The Reading goalkeeper has plenty of experience and he was at his best on Tuesday as he made six saves to help his side to an important clean sheet. He was crucial at the Madejski Stadium, as he offered a calming presence in goal and organised the defence in front of him efficiently.
Jaap Stam was forced into two defensive changes and there could have been the potential for disruption, but their 35-year-old keeper ensured that wasn’t the case.
He made one great save to prevent Lucas Piazon, while an earlier stop from a Tom Cairney free-kick was also impressive. The Oman international has been an ever-present for Reading this season and it seemed fitting that he would deliver an incredible performance to take them to Wembley.
At 35-years-old, he has seen nearly everything there is to see in football and he will be crucial in the final once again.
Ryan Sessegnon should resist Tottenham interest and remain at boyhood club Fulham
The 19-year-old has been linked with Spurs for some time.
The more Ryan Sessegnon excels, the more the tabloids run wild.
It seems that every coming week brings a new, outlandish rumour for the 17-year-old’s future destination. The most consistent linked with Sessegnon has been Tottenham Hotspur, but the Fulham youngster has also attracted attention from the likes of Liverpool, both Manchester clubs, Real Madrid, and Bayern Munich.
Yet, despite all of the interest from mega-clubs, Ryan Sessegnon should remain at Fulham.
The precocious talent has taken the Championship by storm ever since he made his debut as a 16-year-old in August 2016.
Sessegnon began his career as a left-back but was used to great effect in a more advanced position during the end of the 2016/17 season. Midway through this campaign, he has established himself as a left-winger in Slavisa Jokanovic’s 4-3-3 system.
The teenager has blossomed at Craven Cottage, leading Fulham in scoring with a remarkable 14 goals to date. Even more impressive, he has risen to the occasion in the high-profile matches, notching goals against Wolves, Aston Villa, Derby, and his first professional hat-trick against Sheffield United.
The reason Sessegnon has excelled at Fulham? The immense faith and trust the coaching staff have placed in his abilities. A stunning statistic is that at just 17 years of age, Ryan Sessegnon is the only player in the Fulham squad to start every single match this season.
If he were to leave Fulham, he would lose the crucial aspect that has let him flourish: constant game time. At his age, the most valuable thing a player can have is regular first-team experience.
A move to a so-called bigger club would undoubtedly result in reduced first-team appearances for Sessegnon, which would hamper his progression at a crucial moment in the Englishman’s development.
If Fulham can achieve promotion to the Premier League this season, an event that is looking increasingly likely due to a 15-match unbeaten run, then there is no doubt Sessegnon should remain in SW6.
A guaranteed starting role in the world’s top league will provide the youngster with the perfect chance to fulfill his sky-high potential, an opportunity he would be remiss to pass up.
Since Aleksandar Mitrovic left, he and Newcastle United have scored the same amount of goals
The Serbian striker is leading Fulham to potential promotion.
Fulham continued their march in the Championship this week with an impressive 3-0 win against Sheffield United at Craven Cottage. The result moves the Cottagers up to fourth in the Championship and into serious contention for promotion to the Premier League. If they do make it back to the top-flight then the signing of Aleksandar Mitrovic will prove to have been crucial.
The Serbian striker scored twice for Fulham against the Blades, continuing his excellent form. Since joining Fulham at the end of January Mitrovic has managed to score an impressive five goals in seven games.
It is run of form which will be hard to take for Newcastle United fans. Mitrovic is of course on loan at Fulham from the struggling Premier League side.
Newcastle are currently just two points off the relegation zone in the Premier League. Despite their struggles this season, Rafa Benitez continued to ignore Mitrovic’s claims for a first-team position.
Now that is looking like a poor decision from the Newcastle manager.
Mitrovic’s tally of five goals since he joined Fulham is impressive in itself. Newcastle fans will not like to hear the following statistic though. The Magpies have only managed to score five goals as a team since Mitrovic was allowed to join Fulham in January.
It is hard to see how the Fulham loanee would not have been a helpful member of the Newcastle team if he was given a chance by Benitez before the end of the season.
Mitrovic’s form at Fulham is even more depressing when considering who Newcastle brought in to replace him. Algerian striker Islam Slimani arrived on loan from Leicester City to take his place. However, injury means Newcastle fans are yet to see him play for the club over a month later.
Mitrovic can be a controversial and often inconsistent operator up front. But he is proving what he can do at Craven Cottage and leaving Newcastle slightly red in the face.
There is a chance Newcastle could go down and Fulham win promotion on the back of Mitrovic’s goals. If that proves the case, Mitrovic’s exit will go down as one of the worst transfer decisions in Newcastle’s recent history.
Has Slaviša Jokanovic assembled the Fulham team of the century at just the right moment?
The Serbian’s side are flying in the Championship and look on course for promotion.
Times like this rarely come around for clubs like Fulham. Not since 2010’s spellbinding Europa League final run have the Whites conjured up such optimism, goodwill, and footballing joy.
The current 13-match (and counting) unbeaten run is truly historic and has provided the long-suffering Fulham faithful with moments to savor for years to come. And there is a feeling around the club of unfinished business- that this year the team Slaviša Jokanovic has assembled can go one step further than last year and achieve promotion to the Premier League.
Fulham’s weekend win over Derby County marked their tenth win in their last 13 games. 33 points from a possible 39. 32 goals scored and just ten conceded. Five clean sheets in the process. It is no understatement to say that this is the best form Fulham have seen in decades; not since the jubilant campaign of 2000/01 have the Cottagers hit such heights.
The last four matches have been ever the more impressive considering the high-quality opposition Fulham have faced. Following a draw with Bolton in mid-February, the Whites embarked on a run of fixtures against six out of top nine, including all other teams in the top six.
On paper, it appeared a brutal stretch that would test the club to their limits. Common knowledge was that the Whites would be clinging on to their spot in the play-offs by March.
Yet this Fulham side pays little attention to common knowledge. The supposed heavyweight clubs in the Championship, Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers, both left Craven Cottage empty-handed after being swatted away and held goalless.
Fulham beat Derby County away for the first time in 16 years, while they held Bristol City to an entertaining 1-1 draw. Four matches against four of the best in the division have resulted in three wins and a draw.
What’s perhaps most remarkable about the magnificent run is that it has not been propelled by a single standout player, but rather by the entire squad.
The return of Marcus Bettinelli has been a revelation, and just like last season, he has brought newfound form to side. Tomas Kalas, and Tim Ream in particular, have been stalwarts at the back. Ryan Fredericks, who recently marked a century of appearances for Fulham, has terrorised opposition defenses all season with his searing pace. Matt Targett has added class and composure, despite his tender age, proving to be an astute loan signing.
And that’s just the back five. The midfield three has truly reestablished itself after early season struggles. Tom Cairney is back to his rampaging best after an injury-hit first half of the year, Stefan Johansen has recaptured his 2016/17 form, and Kevin McDonald is imperious as always in the centre of the park.
Aleksandr Mitrovic truly seems to be the final piece in Slavisa Jokanovic’s jigsaw. The Serbian striker has fired home three goals in his last three matches, providing strong hold-up play, powerful driving runs, and lethal finishing. Finally Fulham have the striker they deserve.
Then there is Ryan Sessegnon. At this point, superlatives can no longer do him justice. There are simply no words for the season he is having. At the age of 17, having played the majority of his matches as a full-back, the Englishman has bagged an outstanding 14 goals.
Sessegnon’s passion and love for the club makes each goal ever the more enjoyable; he is a dream come true for Fulham fans. Suddenly, talk of a spot on the plane to Russia no longer seems so outlandish.
After the next two matches against Sheffield United and Preston, 8th and 9th in the table respectively, the Whites have a run-in of dreams. In their remaining nine fixtures, they play just one team in the top ten. It is not totally radical to dream of an unbeaten finish to the campaign.
But times weren’t always this good on the bank of the Thames. Remarkably, some supporters were calling for Slavisa’s sacking after a rough October that left the Whites languishing in 17th.
Such rash judgements seem foolish now, and credit is due for the level-headed management that trusted in the Serb’s judgement. Come May, that patience could very well be richly rewarded.
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