Slavisa Jokanovic creates history after leading Fulham into the Premier League

Gabriel Sutton by Gabriel Sutton / 27 May 2018, 09:12

Fulham are promoted to the Premier League after Tom Cairney’s first half goal gave them a 1-0 Championship Play-Off Final victory over Aston Villa.

Their win meant the pre-match comments of Whites boss Slavisa Jokanovic, who unusually described Villa as “an old and tired team” before stating his intention to put John Terry “under pressure from strong and fast players” went unpunished.

Before the game, there was talk of the Serb’s remarks backfiring on him and Aston Villa’s big-game experience coming to the fore, not without good reason. Eight of the starting eleven had featured in play-off finals and that’s without including the pedigree of John Terry, whose elite career meant he never needed to.

There was also concerns about whether Fulham, who employ a process-driven approach which requires extra self-assuredness, could execute their possession-based performance on the big stage.

Those concerns held weight early on, when Villa pressed intelligently, forcing midfielder Kevin McDonald and defender Denis Odoi into the occasional slip.

Fulham though didn’t lose faith in their plan and after growing into the contest, Tom Cairney netted a crucial 23rd-minute opener. Stefan Johansen played a clever reverse pass to Ryan Sessegnon, who escaped Conor Hourihane’s delayed challenge to worm inside and slot through for Cairney to finish smartly.

From Steve Bruce’s perspective, the goal raised concerns. Alan Hutton, who had been tasked with watching Aboubakar Kamara, was too slow to switch his concentration to Cairney’s run. Centre-backs James Chester and Terry, who had looked rock-solid in the semi-final win over Middlesbrough, were both slow to react; was Slav right after all?

Normally, his side can manage leads in the second half by keeping the ball. Due to the unique nature of the contest though, they were pinned back: Villa re-started the game with far more vigour and intensity than we saw in the latter stages of the first half.

Hourihane gained a grip on the midfield while Albert Adomah posed a threat down the left, the latter’s cross headed just over the bar by Jack Grealish. The attacking midfielder is known less for his aerial prowess and more for his silky footwork, which we saw just before the hour mark, when he escaped numerous Fulham defenders only to be denied by Marcus Bettinelli from close-range.

Villa looked set to turn the screw when Odoi was given a second yellow after a rash challenge on Grealish during a feisty period.

Ironically though, the Cottagers managed proceedings in the second half better with 10-men than with 11. It might have raised a few eyebrows when Kamara, who had nearly won a penalty out of his counter-attacking qualities, was taken off, but holding midfielder Oliver Norwood made some vital challenges and one or two cynical fouls when needed.

The Midlanders came closest when Robert Snodgrass curled wide with a late free-kick but otherwise, Bettinelli’s goal went surprisingly unchallenged, condemning Villa to defeat.

The Villans have made progress this season and there are better characters around the club, for which Bruce deserves credit. The next step though is to establish a more coherent playing identity, the absence of which has sometimes been accounted for by moments of individual quality.

By contrast, Fulham are more deserving of their place in the Premier League. Having won the hearts of many neutrals in the Championship with their free-flowing play, they now have an opportunity to take on England’s elite.

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