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Fulham out to make up
The Fulham juggernaut hit a pothole last weekend. A team unbeaten in 23 Championship matches got turned over by 20th‑placed Birmingham. Had they won, the Cottagers would have been promoted to the Premier League ahead of Cardiff. Instead they lost 3-1, conceding two first-half goals. So, how to avoid it happening again in the play-offs?
Fulham must now go again and face two encounters with Derby in 72 hours, starting with the first leg at Pride Park on Friday night. “It’s a second chance – something like this,” is how Slavisa Jokanovic describes it and the Fulham manager has previously described the play-offs as a positive for his team, a fallback should things go wrong. Now that they have, these two games offer a chance for immediate redemption.
“OK, at the last moment we could not make it. I accept that. I am head coach of this club,” Jokanovic said. “We must be realistic and admit that we didn’t bring our best performance against Birmingham and we made many mistakes. But that’s it. What we did do was cut an 18-point gap between us and Cardiff in the regular season and overtook
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15 teams. We don’t lose our confidence after 90 bad minutes, because we have 2,000 very good minutes behind us.”
The play-offs are notorious for contradicting league form. While the team that finish third in the table, as Fulham did, are statistically the most likely to go up, only one club in
the last five years has done so. Perhaps more worrying for them is the fact Fulham are yet to win a single game in the
Football League play-offs.
In 1989 they lost both legs of the semi-final against Bristol Rovers in Division Three, in 1998 to Grimsby in Division Two. Then, last year, Jokanovic’s Fulham lost 2-1 on aggregate against Reading. The match was decided with a single incident, a penalty scored by Yann Kermogant after a Tomas Kalas handball.
“We didn’t make so many mistakes last year,” Jokanovic said this week . “We lost one 50-50 decision when we touched the ball with a hand after a complicated situation. From my point of view, it was not the way to decide who plays in a final, but it’s football. I don’t look back at this game.”
All the same, Jokanovic hopes the experience of
last year’s semi-final will stand his team in good stead. With away goals not a consideration, it is also a unique type of encounter, a “180-minute match”, as he puts it. He remains bullish, too.
“The play-off a year
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ago showed us what kind of matches these games are. Now we are one year older, one year more experienced,” the Serb added. “We have ahead
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of us one play-off game of 180 minutes. We are a team who take a huge level of the risk and we have to manage this aspect of the situation. We have to be quiet, we have to concentrate and take the right decisions during the game. Definitely I expect we are going to be more successful this time.”
The risk Jokanovic speaks of reflects the way he sees the game panning out. Derby’s manager, Gary Rowett, has also described his team as having been given
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“a second chance” after they slipped out of the top six in April only to bounce back and hold on to sixth place on the final day. Jokanovic believes Rowett’s team will let Fulham dictate the play, in both legs, and look to catch them out on the break.
“We know how they will play,” Jokanovic said. “They are a good team – expensive, experienced. They will try what they always try, to be aggressive and try and catch us in transition. They will not try to dominate us with the ball. They won’t take the ball.
“It is our responsibility to try and move the ball. To take enough acceptable risks during the game. And that’s it. In the 180 minutes different things will happen and we will have to manage them.”
Bluff fighting talk from the Serb then, before a crucial game in his career. There is no doubt he has greatly improved Fulham in his two-and-a-half years but now he needs to prove it in a one-off situation (or two, depending on your perspective).
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