North End return to Deepdale on Tuesday night to face Fulham under the lights. With a quick turnaround from Saturday’s 2-0 defeat at Loftus Road, Alex Neil will be looking for a reaction from his players, in the hope of avoiding a fifth consecutive league defeat for the Lilywhites for the first time since January 18th, 2003. That stat took a lot more scrolling than I expected it to!
After recent games, we find ourselves outside of the playoff positions for the first time since the end of August and facing the task of reclaiming the place in the dogfight for promotion, which we have worked so hard and so well to earn, as soon as possible as the pack at the top of the table begins to break up.
The international break, as we here at From The Finney have alluded to often, has been far more a curse than a blessing in recent years. However, the most recent one appears to have had a longer lasting effect this time around than it had previously, contributing to our recent downturn in form.
That being said, Fulham are a good side, but not infallible, as Bristol City proved at the weekend. This could be a good opportunity for the squad to buck up and show what we fans know they are really made of.
Taking a positive result from the team currently sat 3rd in the table would certainly be a good statement to make after recent events.
The form of the two sides could hardly be more contrasting, with PNE on the aforementioned 4 game losing streak. Fulham did taste defeat themselves on Saturday, at the hands of Bristol City, but had been on a 4 game winning run prior to the weekend which had propelled them up to 3rd place in the table.
Victories over Derby and QPR helped with their upward trajectory and their final win of that run, a 2-1 victory at Swansea, was also impressive. They took a two-goal lead into half time and managed to hold onto it against a Swansea side that did threaten to claw their way back in the second period.
A mixture of attacking flair and defensive resolve has been just the ticket for Scott Parker’s side and, until fairly recently, it was something North End shared with them.
I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the spark has been somewhat dampened in recent weeks at Deepdale although, as has been the case for the last couple of years now, it’s hard to look beyond an injury crisis as the culprit.
We have been trying to muddle through with a makeshift back 4 for the last few games and it has certainly taken its toll.
Those deputising did sterling work when facing league leaders West Brom, particularly after what happened in the game prior, and were unlucky to be robbed of what would have been a deserved point by a refereeing decision which has been condemned almost universally (in the football world at least) as extremely poor.
The cracks showed themselves again at QPR on Saturday though, particularly for the first goal (with the second being another penalty awarded by a more than questionable decision) and the problem of scoring, or more specifically, not scoring goals reared its head again and it has now been over 6 hours since we last found the back of the net.
As modern-day Preston fan favourite, Aiden McGeady once said in an interview following an Old Firm derby during his days with Celtic; “If you don’t score goals then you won’t win titles.”
Now, we’re not quite pushing for a title yet, but the point remains that something is missing upfront, something from the early parts of the season that it would be best to rediscover sooner rather than later.
When thinking of Fulham and the dangers in their squad, it’s hard to look anywhere other than directly at the imposing figure that is Aleksandar Mitrovic.
The big Serbian striker is in stellar form, with 7 goals from his last 7 league games, so now is as horrible a time to face the former Newcastle man as ever.
Particularly when you take into account our current defensive frailties and the fact Mitrovic has scored 6 goals in his 4 appearances against North End in recent years. In fact, we are the club Mitrovic has netted the most times against during his professional career.
When Mitrovic isn’t scoring, his partner in crime Aboubakar Kamara is finding the net in just as prolific a fashion. He himself bagged a double in their recent victory against QPR and is a just as viable, albeit slightly different type of, threat.
The quality of Ivan Cavaleiro and Anthony Knockaert on the flanks can’t be ignored either. Perhaps unlucky to not be playing in the Premier League, both of them have tremendous ability and can unlock defences in the blink of an eye.
This week, our opposition view comes to you from Jack Collins. Jack is a Fulham fan and is a part of the Fulhamish; a Fulham fan podcast. You can find and follow Jack on twitter here – @jackjcollins. Also, Fulhamish are on twitter too – @FulhamishPod.
If you’d have told us we’d have been sitting in third place in December, I think many of us would have bitten your hand off.
Whilst the rest of the world chatted away about Fulham’s squad – Knockaert, Cavaleiro, Mitrovic, Cairney are all, on paper, absolute world-beaters in this division – those of us immersed in this funny old club were worried sick about the lack of cover at the back, about the age-old full-back questions, about a manager with no real experience, and about how it would all gel together.
We went off to Oakwell on the first day of the campaign and duly lost 2-0 to a Barnsley side who have failed to pick up almost any wins since, and the worrying intensified. Fulham have improved vastly since then, but there’s still a sense that this side are yet to hit any semblance of the form that they should be capable of. Flashes, yes – beating Millwall 4-0 at the Cottage, a brilliant first half against Derby, the demolition job at Reading – but nothing consistent.
A four-game winning streak was brutally ended by Bristol City on our own patch on Saturday, in a game mired in refereeing controversy but in truth, one which we deserved nothing from.
The fact that we’re third is a huge positive with all this considered, and the man that has put Fulham onto his broad shoulders and carried us through is Aleksandar Mitrovic, who is the division’s leading scorer because he is, simply put, the best striker in the division.
He creates havoc for opposition defenders, wins balls he has no right to win and finishes most chances with aplomb. Tom Cairney has been mostly good from the middle of the park too, and the return of the mercurial Aboubakar Kamara has coincided with an upturn in recent goalscoring threat and putting away games, whilst Cardiff loanee Bobby Decordova-Reid has been immense at linking play.
There are questions still though, especially in the left handed defensive channel of Tim Ream and Joe Bryan. Ream, our player of the season when we were promoted two seasons ago, is still a classy defender but has lost a yard of pace, and Bryan, whilst a fan favourite and an excellent crosser of the ball, often leaves his defensive channel vacant, and teams have been quick to punish.
Anthony Knockaert has also flattered to deceive at times, whilst our midfield corps is heavily injury-hit as we speak. However, Deepdale is a ground that holds a lot of happy memories for Fulham, and in stark contrast to Bristol City, who are our bogey team in many respects, we have a surprisingly good recent record in Lancashire.
The last-minute heroics of two years ago are still fresh in the memory, whilst Dembele and McCormack gave us a deeply undeserved win at your place two seasons prior when wins were rare and away wins were like gold dust.
Parker has been at his best this season whilst learning from his mistakes, and with your Lilywhites in a bit of a rut themselves, will be seeing this as an opportunity to bounce back quickly from the weekend’s disappointment before a local derby against Brentford next up.
Expected XI: Rodak; Odoi, Mawson, Ream, Bryan; Cairney, Johansen; Kamara, Decordova-Reid, Cavaleiro; Mitrovic.
Score Prediction: 2-1 to Fulham. Two for Mitrovic and one for Seani Maguire.
This is a tricky one. As optimistic as I want to be it’s hard to look past the injury crisis at the back, as well as our newfound issues at the other end of the pitch too. Despite this, I hope I’ll avoid tempting fate when I say I still think we’re a good side and luck has certainly not been on our side recently.
I think we’ll break our scoring duck and take a point on Tuesday night. Of course, Mitrovic is probably going to score for Fulham so my shout is 1-1.
As for an XI prediction, I think I will leave this one. It’s anyone’s guess as to who may or may not start tomorrow with the injuries we have at the moment.
Obviously there’ll be the usual faces in Ben Pearson, Declan Rudd, Joe Rafferty, Alan Browne, Tom Barkhuizen and presumably Andrew Hughes, provided they’ve not picked up any injuries since Saturday. But as for the rest, let’s wait and see if there are any surprises.
What are your predictions for the game? Are we going to break our losing streak or might Tuesday evening be something of a misery compiler for North End fans? Let us know by getting in touch on our social media.
Not listened to the latest episode of the From the Finney podcast? Hit the play button below, we’ve got you. Finally, we also made our Sky Sports debut this week with Jake featuring on the latest episode of the Sky Sports EFL Podcast. Check it out here – Sky Sports x From the Finney.