On Tuesday evening Fulham dispatched Leeds United 2-0 at Craven Cottage, closing the gap on second-placed Cardiff City and extending their club-record unbeaten run to 18 matches.
A fortuitous first-half goal from Kevin McDonald and a goal from the red-hot Aleksandar Mitrovic gave Fulham the victory, condemning Leeds to a fourth defeat in six matches.
Here are three takeaways from the Tuesday night Championship clash…
Fulham have a chance at second place
It’s official: the race for second place is well and truly on. On Monday night, Cardiff City threw away precious points and drew 1-1 with Sheffield United. Combined with Fulham’s win over Leeds, the gap between second and third is now whittled down to just five points.
Perhaps most telling was not the result at Bramall Lane, but Cardiff’s performance. The Bluebirds were well off the pace all match long, decidedly second-best. The Welsh side deserved to lose, and would have, if it wasn’t for some lax finishing by the Blades.
And the fixtures don’t come any easier for Cardiff, with consecutive matches against Aston Villa and Wolves, two of the best teams in the division. Fulham suddenly have increased momentum and a far easier run-in.
Leeds are falling apart… again
For a second straight season, the Yorkshire club has failed to live up to high expectations.
The listless defeat to Fulham left Leeds in 13th, ending their chances at finishing in the top-six. A promotion push will have to wait yet another season, marking a fourteenth consecutive season spent out of England’s top flight.
And worryingly, it seems that there has been little to none improvement under boss Paul Heckingbottom. Since the ex-Barnsley manager took over, Leeds have lost six out of ten matches, hardly a new manager boost.
It certainly seems to be a dismal time at Elland Road.
Bettinelli proves his worth
Fulham’s unbeaten run has now stretched to 18 matches, but the revelation truly occurred just one week before the start of the undefeated spell.
On December 9, Slavisa Jokanovic handed goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli his first start of the season, dropping the often-criticised David Button to the bench. Bettinelli’s return has coincided with Fulham’s tremendous return to form, and the young Englishman has contributed countless massive saves in that spell.
On Tuesday night, Fulham’s ‘keeper again stepped up in a vital manner, saving one-on-one from Leeds’ Caleb Ekuban when it looked certain the striker would score. That superb save led directly to a Fulham counter-attack, which Aleksandar Mitrovic dispatched clinically.
Simply put, Bettinelli won the match for Fulham; his importance to the Cottagers cannot be understated.
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Cairney ready to fight
Fulham captain Tom Cairney played a crucial part in his side’s promotion from the Championship last term but he faces a stern battle to retain his spot in 2018-19 following an influx of transfer activity at Craven Cottage.
The competition for places has increased significantly with the signings of Jean-Michel Seri, Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa and many more but Cairney is relishing the fight to land a regular starting berth in the line-up.
In comments made to Sky Sports, Cairney praised the club’s hierarchy for showing their ambition and admitted he was extremely excited by the club’s activity on Deadline Day – where five new faces were secured.
Norman and Djalo exit
With plenty coming in, it has been clear that there needs to be movement away from Craven Cottage and Fulham have sent two of the younger members of their squad away on loan for the season, as reported by Sky Sports.
21-year-old goalkeeper Magnus Norman, who is yet to make a senior appearance for the club, has left to join Rochdale until January after the signings of Fabri and Sergio Rico pushed the stopper down the pecking order.
Meanwhile, 24-year-old Marcelo Djalo has moved to Spanish second division outfit Extremadura on loan until the end of the season after making just four appearances last term after signing for the west London outfit.
Hugo Mallo rejection
Fulham did not get everyone they set their sights on in the summer and failed to lure Hugo Mallo to the club from Celta Vigo after tabling a £9m offer for the experienced full-back, according to Marca, before then turning their sights towards Manchester United‘s Timothy Fosu-Mensah.
The 27-year-old elected to remain with the LaLiga side and has now explained the reasons behind that decision to Marca, ahead of the commencement of the new campaign in Spain this weekend after signing a new deal with the club.
“In life, money isn’t everything. My intention was always to continue playing for Celta. So the agreement with the club was simple and very fast.”
The shining light of Fulham’s successful promotion push last season, plenty of eyes were cast towards Ryan Sessegnon in the summer with the likes of Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur heavily linked with the future England star.
Sessegnon netted 15 goals and bagged six assists last season for the Cottagers but never had his head turned by the reported interest from other sides, he told Sky Sports, although he admitted he has received a boost from the suggestion he is ready to play Champions League football.
From Fulham’s perspective, the 18-year-old did not offer an update on his contract situation and said he was not aware of a new deal being in the pipeline.
Team of the Week: Crystal Palace’s Wayne Hennessey flawless performance denies Fulham
The Welshman was on hand to deny Fulham on six occasions.
When Crystal Palace went out and acquired Vicente Guaita from Getafe in the summer, goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey surely must have been apprehensive about his status as the club’s number one.
But, despite the Spaniard’s arrival, Hennessey kept his place in the squad and produced a flawless performance against Fulham en route to a 2-0 victory this weekend.
The Welshman did also sign a new three-year contract over the summer, and rewarded Roy Hodgson’s faith in him by recording six saves against the Cottagers.
“[Hennessey] ended the last season exceptionally well and played very well around that time, so even though both goalkeepers have done well in the pre-season matches, I had no reason to take the shirt from Wayne.”
The newly-promoted side started the match brightly and had the Eagles on the back foot at Craven Cottage, yet the 31-year-old stood strong between the sticks.
In the first five minutes, Hennessey dove brilliantly to his left to claw away a rasping drive from Cyrus Christie. He followed that up by denying Aleksandar Mitrovic’s smashed strikes on a number of occasions, frustrating the Serbian striker.
The goalkeeper’s saves were ever the more impressive considering the lack of clear-cut rebounds they produced. With winger Ryan Sessegnon eager to pounce on any loose ball in the box, Hennessey made sure to parry shots well away from the danger area and maintain his clean sheet.
Vital to Crystal Palace’s defensive solidity in their opening Premier League win in SW6, Wayne Hennessey repaid his manager’s faith and earned himself a place in the team of the week.
Fulham’s likely XI vs Crystal Palace: Seri, Bryan & Schurrle debuts
There are plenty of new faces at Craven Cottage.
Slavisa Jokanovic is going to face a number of selection dilemmas over the course of the coming season after some excellent summer recruitment by Fulham.
His owners have provided him with a squad that should compete in the Premier League and relegation now looks very unlikely, even before a ball has been kicked.
That is quite some achievement by a promoted club that has come through the play-offs and Tony Khan deserves praise for the business he has conducted.
Fulham have been ambitious and shown just how attractive they can be with Premier League status. The supporters are rightly excited ahead of the first game against Crystal Palace.
Here is how the Cottagers could line-up…
Goalkeeper – Fabri
The Spaniard was signed from Besiktas during the summer and he is likely to start the season in goal for Fulham. It could be that he is only keeping the shirt warm for Sergio Rico, but his compatriot only joined on deadline day and this weekend is likely to come too soon.
If Fabri wants to be the number one this season, it is important that he delivers on Saturday as he may not get too many more chances.
Defence – Christie, Chambers, Le Marchand, Bryan
There were a number of defensive signings made by Fulham over the summer as they prepare for life in the Premier League and three could be set for their debuts on Saturday.
Cyrus Christie is likely to start the season at right-back and he will be hoping to step his game up to replace Ryan Fredericks. The opposite full-back position could go to Joe Bryan. The deadline day signing played for Bristol City last weekend and he will be ready to go.
Calum Chambers will provide Premier League experience, while Maxime Le Marchand has had a pre-season with Fulham and could be given the start. Alfie Mawson will be missing for the opening fixture, but he is likely to take one of the spots on his return.
Midfield – McDonald, Seri, Cairney
Although there has been a lot of eye-catching signings made by Fulham over the summer, it is important that Jokanovic maintains a core from the promotion-winning team. Kevin McDonald has been crucial in their development in recent years and he will be given the chance to start the season.
He sits in front of the back four and allows the more talented players to thrive in the team. Tom Cairney has considered a Premier League player for a long time and he now has the opportunity to prove that. Last season, he contributed six goals and five assists. He will want a similar return in the Premier League.
The headline signing of Fulham’s summer was Jean Michael Seri and he will be the player everyone is watching at Craven Cottage on Saturday. He will provide dynamism and technical ability to the midfield. The Ivorian will want to make an instant impact against Crystal Palace.
Attack – Schurrle, Mitrovic, Sessegnon
The Cottagers are a promoted club, but their forward line looks to be one of the best outside of the top six. Andre Schurrle will be given his debut on the first weekend of the season and he will have a point to prove in England after an underwhelming spell with Chelsea.
Aleksandar Mitrovic was excellent for Fulham last season and his permanent signing was a priority during the summer. They managed to get him back and he will be full of confidence as he attempts to prove himself in the top-flight. The system will get the best from him.
They will be joined in the attack by Ryan Sessegnon. The teenager will be hoping to have a good first season in the Premier League and his partnership with Bryan has huge potential. The academy graduate will be deployed in an advanced role, where he can do most damage.
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