Behind Enemy Lines: Fulham

MILLWALL host Fulham on Friday, with the two sides having the two longest unbeaten runs in English football.

Slavisa Jokanovic's side head to a sold-out Den under the lights, hoping to keep their automatic promotion hopes alive.

The Lions can heap the pressure on Middlesbrough and Derby with a win, ahead of their clash on Saturday.



Millwall lost 1-0 to Fulham at Craven Cottage in November when they had numerous chances but failed to take them as the hosts won through an Oliver Norwood penalty.

Lucas Ball spoke to Fulham fan Daniel Smith this week.

Twitter: @Fulham_Focus



Why do you support Fulham?

It's a family tradition. My grandad started it all off in the ‘40s and then passed it through the generations to my mum, me, my sister and now my two eldest kids have season tickets. My first game was when I was two years old. We lost to Peterborough 1-0 at the Cottage, I don't remember it but I can't complain that I wasn't warned about what I was getting myself into!

It's quite funny explaining that to a Millwall supporter. I was born in Guys Hospital and grew up and went to school in Bermondsey. I was always down the Blue or Surrey Quays as a teenager. Still don't live that far away, to be fair.

My first job was working halfway down Surrey Canal Road, too, so I know Millwall as a club very well and had it not been for family, I probably would be a Millwall fan based on geography and who all my mates supported.

What’s been your favourite season following the west London side?

Pretty easy for fans growing up who are the same sort of age as me. I think it's common for fans to regard the era when they were a teenage fan, starting to understand what it was all about, as their favourite team/season.

Luckily for me that was the last time we were promoted to the Premier League. The football we played was beautiful to watch and the manager we appointed, Jean Tigana, to spearhead the charge was always three steps ahead of everyone else.

He brought a new culture to English football at this level, no longer just about guts, sweat and black eyes. He changed the mentality of our football club and never left any stones unturned. He even had the players’ teeth examined as a way of determining how good their diet and personal hygiene was. After all, if you can't be arsed to look after your teeth properly, I'm not sure you will have the determination to look after the ball!

The football you saw take Swansea to the Premier League a few years back, the way a few teams play now like Wolves, Brentford and ourselves, it wasn't really heard of back in 2000. We had the perfect blend of experience, leadership, steel, quality and pace. It was, for many fans, the best season we've ever had and that's including making it to the Europa League final.

There was just something about the way we did it, very stylish ending with 101 points and Louis Saha up top, whom most Fulham fans would regard as this division's best-ever player. Maybe a tad biased but that was the best individual season I've ever experienced from a player in a Fulham shirt and of course he went onto play for Manchester United.

Do you expect Fulham to get automatic promotion?

I hope so. I believed up until the 94th minute against Brentford last weekend that we were going to do it [before Brentford equalised].

But Colin [Neil Warnock] and Cardiff pulled it out of the bag away to Norwich and I think that showed in our performance during the late kick-off. I think we were all expecting Norwich to do us a favour like they did beating Aston Villa a couple of weeks ago. But it wasn't to be and now we've left ourselves a real tough task.

We need Cardiff to drop points in two of their remaining four games as well as us winning our remaining three. It's a big ask since you are unbeaten in 17 and the other two [Sunderland and Birmingham] are fighting in a relegation battle still.

Before Norwich and Cardiff kicked off at 3pm last Saturday I rated our chances of finishing second at 80 per cent, now I rate them at 35 per cent.

Incredible really because Cardiff were drawing with five minutes to go and we threw it away in the final seconds. Five minutes is a long time in football

Then we turn to the play-offs. Fulham have been involved in the playoffs three times, and we are yet to win a game. Last season we were in your shoes, coming out of nowhere like a train with no one being able to stop us.

We landed in sixth as Leeds were falling apart again (thought you might like that!) And we remained there for the last two or three games, going into the play-offs as red-hot favourites.

Fulham have always been a team that does better when they are the underdogs, chasing the pack with nothing to lose. When we get there, we seem to choke and sadly that's always been the case. So I wouldn't be confident going into what would be a lottery. I think the home advantage would definitely help and unbeaten in 21, you would fancy yourself to beat anyone over two legs…but this is Fulham.

What has been behind this unbeaten run?

A few things have happened to be honest. It's impossible to pinpoint one thing.

Niggly injuries that were preventing us getting a regular team together hadn’t helped. Tom Cairney was missing for ages and since he's come back and been reunited in the midfield trio alongside Kevin McDonald and Stefan Johansen, we now dominate the middle of the park again.

Goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli came in at the start of this run and has made crucial saves at big moments in games, games we would have lost if he didn't and he is a big improvement on David Button whose confidence had gone to pot.

The departure of our stat man Craig Kline who was involved with transfers. Jokanovic and Kline did not get on and the whole atmosphere and expression the team played with before he left compared to now is like Jekyll and Hyde.

Many fans feared Joka would eventually walk because he wasn't getting the players he needed and, dare I say it, he appeared to be making a point to the owners by not playing some of Kline's signings. Eventually around December time, Kline left, these signings I'm referring to were shipped out and we ended up signing Cyrus Christie, Matt Targett and Aleksandar Mitrovic. The latter two are seen as two of the best signings we've ever made given the timing and impact they've had on the side. No wonder our manager looks a different person on the touchline now.

I think if push came to shove, you've got to say that Targett and Mitrovic are the deciding factors. Both added what was lacking and are the missing pieces from the jigsaw.

Targett is the best and most complete left-back I've seen for Fulham and it's allowed Ryan Sessegnon to move forward where he's more dangerous. I think you all know the qualities of Mitrovic and 10 goals in 11 games says it all for me, he'll be the best striker your defence has played against all season.

It's just a shame, like you, that these runs have started so late. We should be walking away with second and you probably feel the same about sixth place right now.

Tell me about it. So those players you’ve mentioned are Jokanovic’s danger men?

I thought that Millwall feared no foe?

You can't leave Sessegnon unmarked in the box. He's just won all five gongs at the EFL Awards and has 14 goals this season at just 17 years of age. In fairness, you won't find many Fulham fans who feel he deserved player of the season, certainly young player but he's been found out a little of late and is still developing and learning his trade. But he will be an England international before long, he could possibly even be on the plane to Russia if we finish strongly.

Mitrovic is an obvious one. He isn't fast but I think the word 'beast' describes him perfectly. Add to that the finesse of a Premier League player and he really is a handful for any centre-half in this division. We were very lucky to get him on loan and if we go up, he would be the signing of the season in my opinion. A bit like Steve Morison does for you, his best asset is the space he creates for others and the link-up play (I'm a big fan of Morison, by the way.)

Then you've got Cairney, who's our talisman. Stop Cairney and you nullify most of our attacks. He has a peach of a left foot but only has the one peg, no right foot whatsoever and he also never shoots which is why I'm not as convinced as others that he's of Premier League quality. But he's certainly one of the very best in the Championship.

Which Millwall players will Fulham be keeping a close eye on?

You tell me, haha!

Although he doesn't get that many goals considering he's a striker, I'd say Morison. The way he links up with through-balls and knock-downs for those around him causes most teams problems. The thing is, you won't have the ball for large chunks of the game so you will need him to protect the ball when you do have it just to give your lads a breather.

I know Millwall work very hard and are an industrious side but running around for 90 minutes against us is probably not a good idea. However, press us high up the pitch and we tend to be a bit sloppier in possession. But when teams fail to press in packs and in the right areas, we just pass the ball for fun and leave the opposition running around like headless chickens.

I'm not a big fan of stats, they're a load of nonsense for me, but it's been the case a few times in the past couple of seasons where we've registered more passes in games than Barcelona.

Shout out to Shaun Hutchinson and Ryan Tunnicliffe as former players. They tend to come back to haunt us. Neither made much of an impression with us but I suppose that's generally the type of scenario this would happen in.

What’s your predicted starting XI and formation?

Well, like all good sides you can pretty much name the 11 every week.

We always play 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, however you like to interpret it. The midfield three tend to play close together in triangles with Mitrovic as our target man. The two out wide cut in to support him and the full-backs overlap.

Our tactics rarely change, although if there is a tactical switch it's normally personnel over formation.

The only position you wouldn't put your mortgage on is the right-wing. It could be any of Floyd Ayite, Lucas Piazon, Neeskens Kebano or Sheyi Ojo. The other 10 I expect to be unchanged.

4-3-3

Bettinelli; Fredericks, Odoi, Ream, Targett; Johansen, McDonald, Cairney; Ojo, Mitrovic, Sessegnon.

Finally, a score prediction?

Fulham – unbeaten in 21

Millwall – unbeaten in 17

…draw anyone?!

I think what's fascinating about Friday is that both teams have the opportunity to put right the dropped points and missed opportunities from last weekend very early. We play before anyone else which means we can both put the pressure on our respective rivals who will no doubt be watching. I don't think a draw does either team any good now so both will be going for it.

At the same time, would the players subconsciously be worrying about losing their unbeaten run? It's a fascinating proposition and that's why we love the Championship.

I'm under no illusions that this game will be easy. I picked out Millwall with 12 games to go as the fixture most likely to end our unbeaten run but deep down I believe we will see out the season unbeaten.

I'm living in hope more than anything, so…

Head says Millwall 1-1 Fulham

Heart says Millwall 1-2 Fulham

See you at the Den. COYW!

Graphic: @ShedCreative 

Staff

(@NewsAtDen)