Derby hosted Fulham on what was expected to be one of the most exciting fixtures of the season. It pinned together two of the highest scorers in Championship season, both of whom have also struggled defensively.
Despite this, Fulham were expected, by many, to prevail after an astonishing run on the back end of the season. It was Derby though who triumphed with a hard fought 1-0 win.
Curtis Davies led, quite literally, by example in a resilient defensive display. But it had to be, as for much of the game it was Fulham who played with the qualities of a home side whilst Derby were happy to play on the break—as away sides often favour.
Very rarely will you see a side play in their own back yard and only manage to maintain 28% possession across the entire 90 minutes. Fulham, in turn, struggled to transform their control into any real chances. An effort off the woodwork combined with Cairney’s curling effort, which just evaded the post, were their best chances to level the score.
The tie is by no means knotted
You have to go back as far as October last year to see the last time Fulham lost a league fixture at home this season: Craven Cottage has become somewhat a fortress. Only Sheffield Wednesday and Bristol City have been able to conquer the Cottagers away from home.
90 minutes is a long time, especially when you’re expected to chase a Fulham side who were quite happy to pass Derby to death.
Fulham substituted their player of the season, Ryan Sessegnon, in the second half in preparation for the second leg. Fulham, before yesterday, had found the net in their last 24 League matches. The task in hand for Derby is a huge one.
League form really does go out of the window in the play-offs
The maddening occasion of the play-offs has an aura to it like no other. Fulham, with the exception of the last game of the season, were undoubtedly the in-form team of the play-offs and were well and truly, the ‘best of the rest’.
Derby, however, relied on a last-minute run of form to clinch the last play-off place whilst Fulham had their eyes firmly on the second automatic promotion place.
Decisions, decisions, decisions
One couldn’t argue with the fact that Gary Rowett will have considerably less decisions to make in comparison to that of Slavisa Jokanovic ahead of the second leg: his side have now lost their last two matches whilst Derby are unbeaten in their last four since their immediate switch in formation.
Rowett made one change within the team that comfortably secured the last play-off spot with a 4-1 victory over Barnsley: Championship top scorer, Matej Vydra, was brought in to inject more energy into the midfield.
After their automatic promotion banishing loss to Birmingham City, Jokanovic made just one change. A like for like switch from Lucas Piazon to Floyd Ayite but this wasn’t enough to avoid consecutive defeats.
Missing Mitro and Jerome’s joy
Derby will have learned that the key to keeping Fulham quiet starts with Tom Cairney and ends with Aleksandar Mitrovic. The Cottagers often attempted to play an early ball to the feet of Mitrovic who then strove to use his power to turn and shoot on sight. Davies did a superb job to restrict his access. Perhaps the most feared striker in the Championship was only able to muster one shot on the Derby County goal.
Cameron Jerome’s physical approach to the game troubled the Fulham back line throughout. He too was brought off in the second half, with the second leg perhaps in the back of Rowett’s mind. The forward man has now scored in four consecutive matches, scoring five. He will surely be the one to watch.