Saturday’s match against Reading was billed as Fulham’s biggest match in the past five years; that lofty title must now transfer to Tuesday’s second leg. After a tightly-contested 1-1 draw at Craven Cottage over the weekend, the task at hand for the Whites is simple. Win on Tuesday night at the Madejski and advance to the Play-Off Final at Wembley. Lose and have the season come to a close, facing another year in the Championship.
The first leg provided a much-needed reality check for Fulham, revealing that the Play-Offs would not be as much of a breeze as many had thought. The Cottagers’ stunning end-of-season form and brilliant record against the fellow playoff sides had established Fulham as clear favorites, yet Reading stunned Craven Cottage back to reality.
A gritty, physical performance filled with constant time-wasting, fortunate refereeing decisions, and defensive grit handed Reading a crucial away draw. Jordan Obita opened the scoring for the Royals in the second half with virtually their first chance of the match. Reading’s game plan had worked out perfectly: stifle Fulham’s free flowing style of play, sit back, and hit them on the counter. Jaap Stam had worked wonders it seemed; Reading were third in the league for a reason.
Yet the closing half hour should give the Whites hope for the second leg. Tom Cairney bagged a slick equalizer after a wonderful Fulham counter, culminating in the captain nodding home from close range. The Cottage sprang back to life and revitalized Fulham’s attack. And with just ten minutes to go, Reading’s captain Paul McShane lunged into a horror tackle with Kevin McDonald. McShane was rightfully shown a straight red for the despicable challenge, ruling out a vital part of Reading’s defence for the second leg.
In addition, Fulham fans should be heartened by the Cottagers’ superb away record. Fulham won more away matches (12) than home matches this season, second only to the champions Newcastle in all of the Championship. Furthermore, the Whites have shown they can play with the best away from home, with massive victories over Newcastle, Norwich, Huddersfield, and Sheffield Wednesday all coming away from the confines of Craven Cottage. If anyone can defeat Reading at the Madejski, it is Fulham.
Fulham have always performed this season when the pressure is on. One only needs to look at Fulham’s late run of form to see a team that can step up in the big matches. There is no doubt that it will be a mammoth task to progress to Wembley, yet if any club can do it, it is Fulham.