Five tough games welcomed Fulham in February, and after 3 wins and 3 draws the dream of finishing 2nd this season is still alive.
In my last article, I said we had to aim for 9-12 points from the four games against Bolton, Aston Villa, Bristol City & Wolves but we’ve only fallen short of that target by 1 point, and realistically it’s been enough to keep us on our promotion charge.
Up to 59 points and despite Cardiff’s win putting them 8 points ahead of us, when Fulham are in this sort of form, catching them up isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Twelve games unbeaten in the league, and we are only getting better as a team.
After a tough first half against Wolves, Fulham turned the screw and got the two goals they deserved. Wolves made it tough for Slav’s men by playing a back-five for most of the game, with the three centre-halves sitting deeper than normal, preventing the likes of Sess and Ayite from running in behind. To be honest, Wolves done a really good job of it for most of the game, but once Sess was the first to react to Mitrovic’s parried effort, Wolves had to take the game to Fulham and it became an exciting game to watch. Jota went close, and Diego Cavaleiro looked a threat for most of the game, but Mitrovic’s goal was tremendous.
Mitrovic held it up, and then turned Coady who had been a pain in his side for most of the game, and from about 18-20 yards beat John Ruddy at his near post. While this was an outstanding goal, it was proof of how important a decent target-man is for our style of play.
Rui Fonte doesn’t have the nasty-side of the game needed for that role, and despite Kamara becoming a bit of a fan-favourite, he’s still too raw of a talent to rely upon week-in, week-out just yet. Mitrovic played really well throughout the game, even if he cut a lonely figure up top on his own when we were under-pressure. He remained disciplined, and gave Boly and Coady a really tough evening, dropping short to link up with the wide men and busting a gut to make sure he was in the area when a cross was put in. A few pundits suggested that Mitro’s still not 100% match-fit, and if that’s the case he’s going to unleash hell in our remaining games if he continues to get a run in the side.
There have already been a number of stand-out performances in recent weeks from certain individuals, but I have to take the time to applaud Matt Targett’s work since joining our club in January. The Southampton loanee has settled incredibly quick at the club, and really embodies the quality you’d want from a modern full-back. His tenacity and understanding of the play in both ends of the pitch has really strengthened Slav’s team in 2018.
For a young footballer, I’ve been really surprised with how calm and patient he is under pressure and he’s not once forgotten about his defensive duties too – something that seems to happen with many full-backs these days.
While the chances of him signing on a permanent deal at the end of the season may be low, his arrival has proved to be invaluable. Finally, we have a top-quality left-back and at the same time it’s allowed Ryan Sessegnon to be set free and really develop as a forward, something we’re reaping the rewards from already.
Actually, the whole back four had a great game against Wolves, and it’s now over 400 minutes since we last conceded a goal at home – a tremendous achievement by everyone and is vital to getting out of this division.
Ream and Kalas have seemingly built a stronger relationship over the last 2-3 months, and this coincides with Bettinelli’s return to the side. While the Button or Betts argument seems to happen every day on social media, Bettinelli’s return to the side has been a blessing. Yes, he’s not the most talented footballer with the ball at his feet, but he’s a much more commanding presence than Button. Betts communication and leadership from the back, helps keep the back four in place, and with Bettinelli much more adept at collecting crosses and commanding his area, there’s no surprise the back four have also looked more solid in recent months.
Although, I’ve mentioned a few names above, it’s exciting that we have so much strength in this squad, and have so many options to choose from. For example, Ayite was probably the player that shone the least against Wolves but Slav has the likes of Ojo, Piazon, Kamara, Kebano & Fonte waiting in the wings, if he wants to swap it around. Out of the choices, I’d probably use Piazon, Kebano or Kamara over Ojo and Fonte, as I feel they provide a lot more threat, even if Ojo had a good run of games earlier in the season.
But this is something, we’ve not really had in previous seasons, and even if Tom Cairney isn’t 100% fit in the centre of the park at the moment, we can still call upon Oliver Norwood to deputise without seriously weakening our starting eleven – a factor that will be priceless for our promotion charge.
Having a squad to rotate and utilise for the final part of the season may well be the difference in the sides that get promoted, and those who miss out. This, will be highlighted when we have to play Derby on Saturday, followed by Sheffield United on Tuesday – this league is cruel.
Having to play two teams in the top eight, in just a few days will push the squad to its limits, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see Cyrus Christie deputise for Frederick’s, just like the Bristol City game.
But, these are games that we have to win, especially with Derby sitting just above us, and despite Sheffield United’s recent drop in form, they still have the quality to beat anyone in this division.
It may sound a bit greedy to demand six points from these two fixtures, but it would push us up to 3rd based on the other results, and close the gap on Cardiff in 2nd. While I’m still pinching myself to remind myself our unbeaten streak is actually happening, the hard work is only just about to start for Fulham. It’s the business end of the season, and there’s no time to take our foot off the pedal as we need to have near-perfect points total from the remaining fixtures to secure an automatic spot – I don’t think I can deal with the nerves of the play-offs again!
It’s been a tremendous couple of months, but we’ve got to keep going. The fans have been unbelievable, and the feeling around the club is incredibly positive. We’ve got to keep going on and off the pitch, and dreams may just come true!
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