What. A. Monday. Night.
And most importantly. What a performance by the boys in white.
From start to finish, there was an anticipation in the crowd that was just palpable all game long. Not a single seat was empty and the old cottage on the corner of the stadium was packed to the brim as well. It was as if it was the 2010 Europa League run all over again, except it was the second round of a playoff tie in the second tier of English Football. Even so, it was safe to say that this was the most important fixture in recent club history. For if Fulham were to not pull this off, the near-term future for the club just looked grim.
But instead of dreading the worst, they came in full swing from kickoff. And it was not just Fulham shooting from wherever they felt like it just for the sake of padding stats. They were coming at Derby’s back three with speed thanks to Ryan Fredericks and Aboubakar Kamara. The latter truly brought in a dimension to the starting XI that just didn’t exist with Ayite in the fold. And most importantly, all three attacking players were working in tandem rather than individually. In the first leg, there was a sense that there was just too much distance between the players in need of being linked up. On Monday, Kamara (47), Mitrovic (32) and Ryan Sessegnon (3) were in concert and just pounded Derby’s defense into submission.
Along with that, the spacing between the Ryan Fredericks (2), Kamara (47) and Cairney (10) triangle was so much better than the Fredericks-Ayite (11)-Cairney positioning in the first leg. Lastly, Stefan Johansen (8) was just way too close and behind Mitrovic in the first leg. In the second leg, Mitrovic provided space for StefJo to run and the attack became more balanced as a result.
Those results included 22 total shots, including 10 of them going towards goal. That being said, the crowd were genuinely scared after the first half that Scott Carson was going to pull off what Ali Al-Habsi did for Reading, but the truth was, Carson wasn’t in the same league as 2017 Al-Habsi. The former Reading man was a two-time player of the year for his club. Carson hasn’t won such an award since he was with Charlton back in 2007! That being said, Carson’s overachievement this season (58 expected goals against vs. 47 actual ones) is quite similar to Al-Habsi’s 2016/17 season (76 expected goals against vs. 64 actual ones).
However, the second half started with a roaring thunder like we have seen many times this season. First, Sessegnon was able to run onto a headed ball off of Johansen and roofed it past Carson from close range in the 47th minute and made it 1-0. Not only was there a sense of relief from the crowd, but there was a real sense that only one team deserved to go through to the Playoff final. It just needed one more goal to send this tie from needing extra time to deciding it all in 90 minutes. Surely enough, Sessegnon stepped to take a 66th minute corner and 5’10” Denis Odoi, not one of the tallest men on the pitch, but somehow is among the club leaders in aerial duels won (3.0 per 90 minutes) and used that prowess to guide the ball to the top corner and send the Cottage to euphoria.
Fulham 2! Derby County 0!
Now Derby was able to string a few attacking movements to close the game out, but with one shot on target and just 0.5 expected goals to show for it, their attack was never designed to be good enough. As mentioned before, manager Gary Rowett set up his side to be defensive minded in hopes of breaking Fulham on the counter in his 3-4-3 formation. It worked on Friday. It did not work at all on Monday and Derby’s wing-backs just couldn’t handle the pace to support a back three that, while experienced, just didn’t have the pace and vibrancy to last the full two legs.
And when the final whistle sound, it was only fitting for the crowd to invade the pitch. It can only happen after a club is able to do something for the first time in 43 years. But instead of playing for an FA Cup with an aging Bobby Moore captaining the side, Fulham will now be hoping to return to the riches of English football.
Next Saturday will be part pageantry and part nervous breakdown. Over 70,000 are expected to turn out for what many consider a game that can be worth £170 million to £200 million in revenue generated for the winning team. That’s literally how much of a difference there is between the finances in the Premier League to that of the Championship. The loser may waffle in misery as they face another season in a league they feel they are too good for. But what an opportunity it is to see if Fulham can be able to claim victory. And against an Aston Villa side that will also be hoping to bounce back up to the Premier League, it will be nothing short of a glorious occasion.
Boy, can this fixture not come any sooner!