Will 3rd-place hoodoo condemn Fulham to play-off failure?
Anti-climactic performances from both Cardiff City and Fulham on the 2017/18 Championship season's final day bestowed automatic promotion on the former and left the latter to prepare for the playoff battle royale.
Fulham went to St Andrew's on a run of 23 matches undefeated in the league. Their 3-1 defeat to Birmingham was a sorry enough end to a scintillating run of form but worse in that a win would have lifted them above Cardiff. Instead, the Bluebirds' stalemate with Reading carried them through to Premier League status.
Fulham rallied, threatening a dramatic comeback against the Blues. Tom Cairney's header brought them close but they never really looked like winning. Gary Monk’s side defended well and attacked with vibrancy. Their three goals delivered the dauntless attitude the ex-Swans boss demanded before this crucial fixture. Birmingham needed a point to survive; they got all three.
Slavisa Jakonvic’s men were best in the league for the season's second half. Better than juggernaut Wolves and promoted Cardiff. The English second tier is not South or Central America, however. The full season counts. If they do not push through in the playoffs, their run will be no consolation.
Slick, attractive, yet purposeful football had careened Fulham head-first towards a collision with the top two. Aleksandar Mitrovic's addition in January injected that allusive potency Fulham so desperately craved. Twelve goals since his loan from Newcastle attests to the outstanding contribution he gave.
Were it any other season, Fulham would be up. To miss out on 88 points is a wicked twist of fate.
While the Cottagers are head-and-shoulders above their play-off rivals, football, or more specifically momentum, can be a cruel mistress. The fuel that so smoothly drove their remarkable run sputtered and splurged at St. Andrew's. It remains to be seen whether the Londoners can crank back into gear.
Only three of the last ten sides who finished third claimed a Premier League spot through the playoffs. It's difficult to shrug off the disappointment of being so close to the ‘promised land’, yet so far. Any malaise can affect the playoff's do-or-die nature negatively.
In theory, Fulham should beat Garry Rowett’s Derby County. They’ll go into the tie as favourites, boasting better players who play a better brand of football. They’ve outscored the Rams and taken 13 more points.
Derby come into the fixture on the back of a resounding victory against Barnsley, who, like Birmingham, needed points to stay up. After three consecutive losses prompted the same criticism Derby have faced for the last several years, namely that they fail to produce when it matters, a resilient spell in which they beat Cardiff 3-1 and drew to Aston Villa has Rams’ fans hopeful that momentum has swung in their favour.
If Fulham see off Derby, they’ll face either Aston Villa or Middlesbrough in the final. Few would relish the prospect of taking on either side. Villa’s more forward-orientated style might make them easier opposition. But for all the Villan's inconsistency this season, they are a club with weight, history and prestige. Those ingredients can inspire a defiant, gruelling resistance.
Jokanovic must pick up his young team's spirit. They will not admit it, but quietly they’ll be crushed. If Fulham are to be the exception to the 3rd-place hoodoo, the Serbian has to inspire his troops three more times.
The Cottagers are capable of blowing away their opposition. Potential will only translate into reality if this young group can move on from their disappointment.