BRENTFORD and Fulham are hoping to cut short top-flight exiles of 73 years and one year respectively – EFL expert Gab Sutton (@_FootbalLab) discusses who will reach the promised land ahead of Tuesday night's Championship play-off final at Wembley.
Brentford v Fulham | Tuesday 4th August 2020, 19:45 | Sky Sports
Brentford against Fulham has been very much an “on-and-off” derby.
The Whites’ descent to the lower leagues reignited a fierce rivalry in the ‘80s and ‘90s, before the two clubs parted ways once again and it took Fulham’s relegation from the Premier League in 2014 combined with Brentford’s promotion from League One that year for the two to meet again in the Championship.
Both have since been among the better sides in the division and with the two clubs, this season, being the closest challengers to automatically promoted Leeds and West Brom, this is a fitting play-off final.
Tuesday’s game is the most prestigious West London Derby between these two yet – it’s just a shame fans will not be there to see it first-hand.
Brentford brimming with belief
Brentford went into Wednesday’s second leg against Swansea with a one-goal deficit to overturn, but overturn it, they did, with a 3-1 victory.
The Bees played at an extremely high intensity which allowed them to dominate the first quarter of the contest – and hit twice through Ollie Watkins and Emiliano Marcondes.
Christian Norgaard’s disciplined display gave Marcondes the freedom to influence proceedings in the final third – he scored a delightful glancing header from Said Benrahma’s perfectly-weighted delivery, after Ollie Watkins had converted one-on-one following a delightful ball from Mathias Jensen.
Jensen, slightly off-form before the game, was picked controversially by Thomas Frank ahead of Josh Da Silva but the Dane vindicated his compatriot’s faith by running the show – he was part of the excellent link-up play with Rico Henry that led to Bryan Mbuemo’s strike.
Like Jensen, there had also been question marks about Mbuemo’s contributions during the three-game losing streak but the young Frenchman’s answer to his doubters was about as emphatic as his close-range finish.
A slight error from Pontus Jansson let Rhian Brewster in to make it a nervy ending for the Bees, but they were reasonably assured in holding out.
Fulham finished the job
Relief was the overriding emotion for Fulham after Thursday’s 2-1 defeat to Cardiff, which meant a 3-2 victory on aggregate.
Scott Parker was quick to recognise the below-par elements of his side’s performance back at the Cottage, where they could not get their passing game together, struggled to deal with balls into the box and relied on a man-of-the-match goalkeeping performance from Marek Rodak.
The Whites fell behind early on to a Curtis Nelson header, for which Michael Hector was unusually beaten in the air and though they responded instantly through Neeskens Kebano’s slick, close-range finish from Bobby Reid’s low cross, they had an awkward time dealing with set pieces and long throws.
The latter led to Cardiff’s second goal, after Fulham failed to deal with the initial ball then left two players unmarked for Lee Tomlin to tap home.
Sometimes going into a second leg with a healthy lead can have an adverse effect on performance levels, because the team in question often goes into it with the mentality of protecting something – that may have been the case for Fulham, who will need to up the intensity levels for Wembley.
The tactics board
Scott Parker is hoping to have star striker Aleksandar Mitrovic available after the Serb missed the two play-off games, but there is still a debate to be had about whether he should start.
On the one hand, Mitrovic is the top scorer in the Championship with 26 goals – he can dominate the opposing penalty area and pose a huge threat from closes into the box with his aggression, aerial prowess and ruthless finishing.
The former Newcastle striker is also a useful out-ball for Fulham, who can knock it long to him when they come under pressure.
On the flip side, though, it is hard to imagine Parker’s side scoring two of the goals they did in the Semi-Final without Bobby Reid as the false nine.
In the first leg, the former Bristol City forward made selfless runs away from goal which created space for Josh Onomah to go on a mazy run and slot home – and in the second leg he put the cross in for Kebano.
Because Mitrovic gears his movement towards poaching goals for himself, at which he is evidently superb, Fulham lose elements of the attacking contributions that Reid makes in his stead.
Whether or not to start Mitrovic is a massive call for Parker and his ability to get that decision right will go a long way to deciding the outcome of the game and season.
The betting angle
In the league table, Brentford and Fulham have been separated only by goal difference, but the shot data tells a different story. The Bees average 1.52 Expected Goals For (xGF) per game and 0.81 Against (xGA), giving them a Ratio (xGR) of 65.17% – 5.86% better than that of West Brom.
Fulham, meanwhile, average 1.39 xGF and 1.16 xGA, giving them an xGR of 54.61%, which is just 0.93% greater than the xGR of Preston North End, who finished ninth with 15 fewer points.
The likelihood is that the difference we have seen in performance data all season will show on Tuesday – and Brentford will enjoy a good proportion of the territorial advantages.
The best bet may be on the Bees to secure promotion, even at slim, odds-on quotes.
Brentford vs Fulham – Brentford to lift the trophy (3/5 888)