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Three Players to Watch: Matchday 21 vs. Birmingham

Can Fulham rebound against a club threatened by relegation?

Birmingham City v Wolverhampton Wanderers - Sky Bet Championship Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images

Just when you thought Fulham were ready to turn things around, they couldn’t hold their nerve after scoring first and fell apart against city rivals Brentford. To their credit, Brentford is a quality side with their underlying numbers indicating that they have no business being outside the playoffs like they are now. Fulham, on the other hand, has looked like a mid-table club from basically the word go this season and have struggled mightily to improve their positioning.

That all being said, if this team has any hope of changing the reputation they have built for themselves, they can start to change it today at Craven Cottage. After facing Birmingham, Fulham gets to play Sunderland and Barnsley before the second half of the fixture list begins. When that starts, they take on Cardiff City, Hull City, Ipswich Town, Middlesbrough, Burton Albion, Barnsley again, Nottingham Forest and Bolton. With the exception of Boro and Cardiff, Fulham plays 10 opponents that are in the bottom half of the Championship table out of their next 12 fixtures. If they seriously want to challenge for promotion back into the Premier League, getting the most out of those 36 possible points is required. Anything fewer kisses the season goodbye.

First up, Steve Cotterill’s side will be the first to test Fulham’s mental fortitude with a flawed squad and evern further chaos throughout the club. 18 players have gone on to play for a quarter of the season (450 league minutes or more) for the Blues and the amount of formations have come from all over the place. That’s what happens when you are on your third manager in less than a year.

To be blunt, their attack is non-existent as evidenced by the lowest goal output in the entire league with 10 in 20 games. If Birmingham are going to beat Fulham, it will because of a miserable reunion with either David Stockdale’s talents or being constantly defeated by dealing with long balls and aerial duels. Otherwise, you would think the home side will get a comfortable three points. Then again, nothing is ever easy for Fulham.

Let’s take a look at who the good guys will have to keep their eyes on the most.

Jota

All data from whoscored.com

The supposed star attraction for Birmingham this season was supposed to be the 26-year old Spanish attacking midfielder from Brentford. However, a hamstring has derailed Jota to just 1,058 and 13 appearances so far this season. When healthy, he is quite a well-rounded player with his dribbling and passing. However, those moments have become few and far between during his time in England.

Before moving from his native Spain, Jota was a product of Celta Vigo’s youth academy. Once he graduated, he joined the club’s reserve side in the Segunda Division where he would put up a solid 22 goals in 68 league appearances. However, that was the best Jota would get from making the first team and he was sent on loan to Real Madrid’s reserves and Eibar in his last two seasons with the club. But it was his 11 goals in 35 appearances and guiding the latter club to La Liga promotion that brought the Bees’ attention

In his first season in England, Jota would hit the same goal tally in 46 appearances and it seemed like the world was at his feet. However, he badly damaged his ankle in the 2015/16 season and returned to Eibar on loan for personal reasons. When he returned to Brentford in January 2017, Jota was back at his best with 12 goals and five assists in just 1,903 Championship minutes. With a year left on his contract, Birmingham answered the call on transfer deadline day with a club record £6 million to sign him. As Jota recovers from his latest setback, he will still be a key man to Birmingham’s side.

Maikel Kieftenbeld

All data from whoscored.com

While Birmingham has some depth along their attacking quintet, they also contain three experienced central midfielders that can do a job. Whether that can be performed at an elite level is not set in stone and their performances today will make or break Birmingham’s chances of winning. While Craig Gardner and David Davis have qualities in their own right, I’m going to pick Kieftenbeld to go more in-depth due to his team lead in defensive contributions with 4.45 tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes. Beyond that, the 27-year old can be a bit too dangerous in the tackle and presents little in the way of spraying variations in passing or mobility.

Despite still being at such a young age, Kieftenbeld came to Birmingham after playing 243 appearances in Dutch club football. The vast majority of his professional career came while playing for FC Groningen where he was a part of the 2014/15 side that won the KNVB Cup and the second qualifying stage of the Europa League. To this day, it was the only major trophy Groningen has ever won and they have not qualified for a spot in the bright lights of European football ever since.

Jacques Maghoma

All data from whoscored.com

Lastly, we take a look at the 30-year old attacking midfielder from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Before joining Birmingham, Maghoma was a product of Tottenham’s youth academy. After not cracking on to the first team he would join then League Two Burton Albion where he would play 172 appearances for the club. After scoring 18 goals in 2012/13, Maghoma made it up to the Championship by signing for Sheffield Wednesday. After spending two years of mediocre play, he joined the Blues and hasn’t looked back.

As seen on his radar, Maghoma is not one to deliver the killer instinct to the club. Since that great season with Burton, he has never had a season where he has scored more than five goals nor has he played over 2,500 minutes in any season in England’s second tier. However, Maghoma still brings a willingness to carry the ball to the final third and that is enough for him to lump passes into their big strikers or fellow midfielders. If he performs well, that is not a good sign for the home side.