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Premier League winter break roundtable

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The Premier League is currently on its first-ever winter break and that gave us time to sit down for a roundtable to have a look at what has happened so far as we are now two thirds of the way into the season.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

Below we answer a host of questions on the 2019-20 season so far and make some predictions for the final few months of the campaign.


Which team(s) has exceeded expectations so far?

Joe Prince-Wright: I tackled this question a few days ago here at Pro Soccer Talk and I think Leicester City and Sheffield United have been the most surprising. Leicester look nailed on to finish in the top four while the newly-promoted Blades look set to push for the Europa League. Both have been a breath of fresh air in the upper echelons of the table and both teams are great to watch as innovators Brendan Rodgers and Chris Wilder set their teams up very differently to the rest of the Premier League. I’ve marvelled at Liverpool’s brilliance all season long and struggle to sum up just how ruthless they’ve been as they sit here with 24 wins from 25 games and no defeats. Jurgen Klopp‘s side have destroyed the rest of the league. Also, a shoutout for Newcastle United too who should be bottom of the table if you’re going on expected goals for and against but somehow Steve Bruce has dragged them through, even with a myriad of injuries.

Kyle Bonn: Obviously Sheffield United is the easy answer here, and it’s fantastic what they’re doing. It only got better with the Blades bringing in Sander Berge in January, a stellar signing. However, I’m going to reach a little further and say Liverpool. What they’re doing this season is beyond the realm anyone thought possible for any team, not just the Reds. Barring a brutal collapse, this season will go down in the history books as one of – if not the – most dominating season of all time. Jurgen Klopp has engineered a masterpiece for the ages, one to sit alongside Da Vinci and Picasso.

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Nick Mendola: Look: There are only two answers In this muddled Premier League season unless you include Liverpool and we write a lot about them anyway. One is Leicester City, and my gut tells me they’ve thrived on good Fortune more than most teams and will sink into fourth or maybe even fifth by the end of the season (Still an incredible season, but that’s the trend in most metrics). Plus, it’s a lot more fun to wax poetic about Chris Wilder and Sheffield United, who rose up the table through a combination of craft, guile, discipline, and hard work. There’s midfielder John Lundstram, who was so under-the-radar that he’s holds the honor of being fantasy PL gift of the season due to being listed as a defender. Young star goalkeeper Dean Henderson is getting England shouts but he’s lived his full senior career knowing he’s behind David De Gea at Manchester United. Wilder has refined Lys Mousset from a Bournemouth disappointment to a lively threat, and unrewarded striker David McGoldrick has produced without actually producing (7.19 expected goals but zero on the actual sheet). And now they’ve signed Sander Berge, showing both their team room, supporters, and the rest of the league that they will spend to make their over-achievement closer to the norm.

Dan Karell: It’s got to be Sheffield United, and a close 1A to Leicester City. The transition between the Championship and Premier League is incredibly difficult, and at this point it’s hard to predict exactly which preparation is best. However, in this case, for Chris Wilder and his team, limiting summer signings and going with the players who got them promoted has paid handsome dividends. Very few people would have expected Sheffield United to be in the top six of the Premier League standings at this point of the year, and who knows, with how bad Man United and Arsenal have been this year, there’s every chance Sheffield United could be playing in Europe next year.


Which team(s) has been the most disappointing?

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JPW: Man City are up there. They’ve been wonderful at times in attack and midfield but so poor defensively and their title defense has never really got going. Not signing a new center back was a big issue for a club which is usually so practical in planning ahead with its recruitment and Vincent Kompany was never replaced properly and Aymeric Laporte‘s injury compounded that. That said, City will probably win the Champions League, FA Cup and League Cup. What a poor season that would be… I’ve been disappointed by Tottenham and Arsenal but mid-season manager changes have seen both teams become more ruthless. I did not think West Ham would be as much of a mess as they have been and I seriously worry about them being relegated.

NM: Now that Everton and Arsenal have (somewhat) stabilized, the answer comes down to two Uniteds. Manchester United’s disappointment is down to its arrogant lack of depth (especially considering few would’ve expected Marcus Rashford to perform at near-superstar levels before his injury), but there’s been nothing worse than West Ham United. The quality on the roster is a Top Seven contender, but they didn’t have answers to the questions posed by long-term injuries to Lukasz Fabianski and Felipe Anderson. Then the club fired its Premier League-winning manager to bring in an even better one  “All I Do Is Win” David Moyes. Scottish DJ Khaled is winless in six since beating Bournemouth and Gillingham to restart life in London.

KB: Tottenham. It’s shocking that the same squad which made the Champions League final less than a season ago is suddenly as deficient as it seems to be now. The midfield is a wreck, the attack is toothless, and the defense is far less dominating. What made Mauricio Pochettino’s team click – a relentless pressing – is now suddenly a glaring weakness. There’s very little ability to stop a counter. Even the famed Jose Mourinho Bump couldn’t rescue this squad. Daniel Levy will have headaches rectifying problems he never imagined would arise. This summer Spurs should be very busy – if they’re not, something has gone terribly wrong.

DK: I’m biased as an Arsenal fan, but it’s got to be Arsenal. It’s been a failure at pretty much all levels of the club. For the umpteenth year, Arsenal came into the season not addressing their core weakness (Centerback and holding midfield), and instead spent big to sign another talented attacker. The panic buy of David Luiz was further proof that Arsenal was only going to go down and down. For the players, they’ve been terrible, for the most part. If you plugged a lot of these guys into other teams, individually, perhaps they’d play better, but the terrible defending has exposed this squad to be much worse than we all thought. Arsenal has won just two Premier League games since Mid-October, which is insane. It’s been a failure across the board.


Who would you rather watch week in, week out if every single player is fit: Liverpool or Man City?

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JPW: I would usually go with Man City but this season Liverpool have taken their game to another level. They haven’t always been at their attacking best but there is something so satisfying about watching an entire unit know they are going to win games, stay calm and doing it. Klopp has turned Liverpool into a well-oiled machine and as slick as Man City are to watch when they are in full flow, Liverpool can blow teams away at the start of games and then turn on the style. One word to sum up watching Liverpool over the last 12-18 months is absorbing. It just captures you.

NM: Oh my, what a question. My personal football preference is the system behind Man City, which has been successfully implemented by so few. Yet the Reds just pouring everything forward and defending from the front while basically telling Virgil Van Dijk and Fabinho “anything else is on you, dog” makes for the possibility of 4-3 on any given day. And it’s a weird season to ask, given that City’s head-scratching lack of depth behind Aymeric Laporte has not given us many opportunities to see the side as intended by its architect.

KB: It has to be Man City. As much as Liverpool’s season has endured, and will endure for decades to come, Man City on its day is so incisive, so dominating, so unplayable. When the team clicks and Pep’s system produces a masterclass, there’s nothing the opponent can do to stop it.

DK: Manchester City. Pep Guardiola teams are so much fun to watch, with their fluid patterns of play and meticulous passing and movements off the ball. I fully expect (assuming Pep comes back next season) for Man City to contend for the Premier League and Champions League next season.


Sum up this Liverpool team this season in one word ______

JPW: Perfect.

NM: Complete.

KB: Ruthless. What’s wild about this season is Liverpool hasn’t been all THAT statistically dominant. They aren’t demolishing teams like Manchester City was last year. They have an xG differential so far of +29.67, which – while outstanding – isn’t remotely close to the pace Manchester City set last year with a bonkers xG differential of +72.8. They aren’t crushing teams with overwhelming tidal waves of attack. What they are doing, however, is taking every minuscule chance afforded to them and causing opponents to pay for even the smallest of mistakes. Last season, Man City actually underperformed its xG by -4.04, while this season Liverpool is outperforming its already fantastic expected goals total by +2.82. Liverpool has won games despite struggling at times. The Reds have displayed otherworldly grit this season.

DK: Ruthless. Similar to Leicester City in 2015-2016, Liverpool doesn’t have to play well to win, because they always find someone to finish their chances in front of goal. This team’s mentality is incredible.


How much longer do you think Jurgen Klopp will stay at Liverpool?

JPW: He has always hinted that he won’t stay be a manager into his 70s or anything like that but given his success and the age of this Liverpool team, maybe he stays until 2024 then leads Germany at the 2026 World Cup? I don’t think he really needs to do much more in the club game after his success with Dortmund and then Liverpool. Maybe his coaching style wouldn’t suit international soccer but it is tough to see why Klopp would leave Liverpool for any other club.

NM: Forever? I don’t see him as the type to take over another English club, and moving to Bayern wouldn’t give him any new advanced goals. I suppose Barcelona could work but why would he want the political headaches of ego in board rooms of either El Clasico rival.

KB: I can’t imagine him doing a Sir Alex Ferguson – that just doesn’t happen these days – but Klopp does seem like the kind of person who has no desire to wish for a “change of scenery” when things go poorly. Still, it’s tough to endure in this climate – look at Pep, who blitzed the league last season and suddenly, at the slightest hint of adversity, has rumors swirling. The media frenzy is sometimes too difficult to outrun. I would say 5 years at the maximum for Klopp at Liverpool, and those could potentially be five dominant years.

DK: Until things go south, so let’s say 4 to 5 years as the current squad ages out and it becomes difficult to replace those talents.

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Who would you vote for as the Premier League Player and Young Player of the Year (21 years old and younger)?

JPW: Roberto Firmino and Trent Alexander-Arnold.

NM: Young Player is easy. Trent Alexander-Arnold. Next. Player of the Year is a challenge. Virgil van Dijk is probably going to get it.

KB: It would have been Marcus Rashford had his manager not decided to play him while injured. Instead, the award should go to Trent Alexander-Arnold.

DK: Virgil Van Dijk, and Trent Alexander-Arnold.


Pick your three most improved Premier League players this season:

JPW: 1. Adama Traore. 2. Jordan Henderson. 3. Danny Ings.

NM: 1. Jordan Henderson. 2. Adama Traore. 3. Bernd Leno.

DK: 1. Caglar Soyuncu. 2. Tammy Abraham. 3. Fabinho.

KB: 1. Adama Traore. 2. Scott McTominay. 3. Fabinho


How would you assess Christian Pulisic’s first season at Chelsea, so far?

JPW: I would give him 7/10. If it wasn’t for injuries he would have a higher score but given the fact he had a tough start under Frank Lampard but then figured it out, it makes it even more impressive. The USMNT star is still just 21 years old and I think we forget that. Pulisic’s recent spell out of the Chelsea team proves just how much they miss him in the final third. His stock is on the rise.

NM: A success, with one qualification. Hampered early by managerial decisions, Pulisic has been good if not very good in 80 percent of his appearances. It’d be fair to call him a Top Ten wide player when healthy. The injury setbacks are tough, but not the mark of a soft player. Plus, as USMNT watchers, we should hope Chelsea treats his return(s) with patience. 8/10.

KB: Pulisic’s first seasons so far has been an unmitigated success. The American has established himself as a key component of Chelsea’s starting lineup, only hampered by injuries. To make things even better, nobody on the Blues has established themselves as critical to the squad in Pulisic’s absence, making his return to the field upon a return to fitness all but certain. It took a little bit of time to settle in, but that’s completely normal when switching leagues in Europe. Pulisic has been fantastic for Chelsea.

DK: Overall, pretty good. He was in, then out, but worked hard to get back in and kept his place in the squad with goals. The recent injury is a blow for him but if he comes back 100%, I believe he’ll get back into the squad.

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Which of the four Premier League clubs will go the furthest in the Champions League?

JPW: I actually fancy Tottenham to go far. Mourinho is a master of the one-off games and they will fancy their chances to get past a RB Leipzig side which has run out of steam in the Bundesliga. Man City will go far too and Pep Guardiola probably needs to win the Champions League this season to make this a successful campaign for them. No pressure, Pep. Chelsea and Liverpool will both struggle against tough last 16 opponents, so it’s a flip of a coin on those two.

NM: The Round of 16 has not been kind to Premier League teams, so this is an extremely loaded question. I’m confident saying the answer is not Chelsea, but not much else. Forced to choose, I’ll peg Man City. As good as Real Madrid has been this season, I still don’t buy Zinedine Zidane outfoxing Pep Guardiola. Plus: Real allowed five goals in claiming one point over two matches with PSG, who feels a bit like Man City without the possession plan.

KB: It would be silly to vote against Liverpool at this stage, right? Right. So I’m not going to do it. Liverpool.

DK: Manchester City. With Aymeric Laporte back and all their focus on the Champions League, I think that Man City will be able to make it back to the semifinals, if not go farther.


Which player(s) will win the Golden Boot?

JPW: I am going for Jamie Vardy and Danny Ings to share the Golden Boot. Both have been brilliant in leading their respective teams and both will be licking their lips at the opportunity to play against plenty of teams below them in the final months of the season.

NM: Sergio Aguero gets his second. The only thing standing in his way is Guardiola possibly prioritizing his use in the Champions League, and that still might not matter.

KB: Jamie Vardy still leads the list, but he hasn’t scored since the holiday season and his insane xG overperformance was always going to regress to the mean eventually (at one point he was outperforming his xG by over 6 goals). Aguero is now one back of Vardy and he seems most likely to overtake the Leicester City frontman. Salah will keep scoring goals as well and has a shot, but there are too many other goalscorers on Liverpool, while Aguero is the focal point at Man City.

DK: Danny Ings? Haha, maybe. I’ll go with Sergio Aguero.


Who will finish in the top four?

JPW: 1. Liverpool. 2. Man City. 3. Leicester City. 4. Tottenham – Mourinho will do his thing and Lampard’s Chelsea will run out of steam. Wolves will be right there at the end of the season and if Bruno Fernandes hits the ground running, I fancy United to shock everyone and maybe sneak into fourth.

NM: 1. Liverpool. 2. Man City 3. Spurs* 4. Leicester City — Leicester’s remaining schedule makes it nearly impossible to drop lower than fourth. The * next to Spurs is because it would be cheating to write “Whoever is first knocked out of the Champions League or Europa League.” Also, Chelsea’s schedule is brutal the rest of the way.

KB: I like the current top four to hold firm. Liverpool, Man City, Leicester City, and Chelsea. Spurs will improve but not enough, while Chelsea will get healthy and maintain that spot. Sheffield United presents more of a threat than Manchester United (I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence) but the gap is just too much at this point to catch a big team.

DK: Liverpool, Manchester City, Leicester City, Tottenham

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Which three teams are going to be relegated?

JPW: Norwich, West Ham, Brighton – The Canaries are great to watch but just haven’t got that extra clinical edge and quality at both ends of the pitch. Daniel Farke knows it and they will be back in a season or two as they continue to be the modern day yo-yo club. West Ham are in freefall and David Moyes looks like a man who has bitten off more than he can chew. They cannot defend and that is what his tactics are based on. Far from ideal. Brighton are my third pick because, like Norwich, they are great to watch but don’t finish off enough of their chances.

DK: Bournemouth, Watford, Norwich

KB: Norwich is the lock at this point, but the other two spots are anyone’s to be had. I like Aston Villa to go down, as Jack Grealish can’t carry that team on his shoulders forever. Watford seemed for all the world to be climbing out, but they just have too many deficiencies to make enough of a push. Bournemouth will also be in the mix – they’ve got tons of injuries and the defense is horrid – but I think Eddie Howe is good enough to keep them up, barely.

NM: 20. Norwich City, 19. West Ham United, 18. Aston Villa — Picking a third team is very difficult with nearly 10 teams in the discussion. Including Villa is the least confident of any prediction on our list, but they could also give us the rare “Championship team in the Europa League” with a win over Man City in the League Cup final. It’s a shame for Norwich City and Daniel Farke, who just don’t have enough good chances for points left on their fixture list. The fixtures are also brutal for West Ham, who may take 2-4 points from their next seven fixtures (Liverpool, Man City, Southampton, Arsenal, Wolves, Spurs, Chelsea) and be adrift for the stretch run.


What is your one outlandish/fearless prediction for the rest of the season?

JPW: Arsenal will finish in the bottom half of the table but strangely there will be an air of positivity around the Emirates Stadium as Mikel Arteta‘s side win some silverware. Europa League or FA Cup.

NM: It’s not outlandish to say Liverpool will lose, or is it? Is it outlandish to say Kevin De Bruyne will break the assist record? Cause I like both of those, but I’ll go with the spirit of the question and say Bruno Fernandes becomes Manchester United’s season leader in assists while averaging a goal or assist per game the rest of the way.

DK: Burnley and Newcastle will finish above one of both of Arsenal and/or Manchester United.

KB: This is tough as most of the unthinkable things (Liverpool’s incredible domination, Sheffield United’s rise, Everton and Arsenal’s struggles) have already shown themselves. It’s tough to say if this season has any more truly wild turns. But I’ll say both Wolves and Sheffield United will finish above Tottenham and Manchester United. Jose Mourinho won’t a full calendar year in charge, if he even makes it to next season.

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Scott Parker’s first season as a manager ends in Fulham promotion

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Fulham are headed back to the Premier League after just one season in the EFL Championship, and that means Scott Parker has worked something of a minor miracle in west London.

[ MORE: Promoted! Fulham back in PL after 1 season in Championship ]

Parker took on a hefty challenge when he accepted his first senior managerial job last year. Fulham were a virtual lock to be relegated from the Premier League when he was named interim boss in February, and their place in the second division had long since been confirmed by the time he was named Claudio Ranieri’s permanent successor in May. The squad was expensive, bloated and full of players who had no intention of sticking around after relegation.

Given the club’s wealth of resources relative to the rest of the Championship, promotion at the first time of asking was more an expectation than a hope at Craven Cottage. Fast-forward 15 months, and the 39-year-old has quickly proven himself the right man for the job after doing just that — taking Fulham back to the PL by way of Tuesday’s Championship promotion playoff final.

Promotion may have been sealed on Tuesday, but Parker believes it was earned over a long period of transition and self-reflection by the players, beginning when he first took the job — quotes from the BBC:

“We’ve done what we’ve done tonight, but there’s still improvement, and that’s what makes me so proud and happy.

“For all of the good players and everything you see, what makes me so happy is I see a group of players who only a year ago were struggling psychologically, didn’t have a mindset or mentality.

“I’ve driven this team every single day and what makes me proud is I stood on the touchline tonight and seen a team that represents what I’ve been saying over the last 12 months.”

Now comes the the truly difficult challenge for Parker: after winning Fulham promotion he must assemble a squad of players not only good enough to stay in the PL, but also one full of individuals who want to be at his club and not simply any club that just so happens to be in England’s top division.

Promoted! Fulham back in PL after 1 season in Championship

Championship promotion playoff final
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Fulham are headed back to the Premier League after claiming west London derby delight at the expense of local rivals Brentford in Tuesday’s Championship promotion playoff final at Wembley Stadium.

[ MORE: Ranking the new Premier League kits for 2020-21 ]

It was an incredibly cagey affair — as the Championship promotion playoff final tends to be — that saw the two sides combine for just 17 shots (four on target) through 90 minutes of regular time. In the end, it was the most unlikely of restarts halfway through extra time that sent the Cottagers on their way.

Brentford were nearly the architects of their own downfall early in the first half. FirstIt was a poor back pass from Henrik Dalsgaard that left David Raya in worlds of trouble in the 10th minute, though Fulham were unable to find a proper chance amid the chaos inside Brentford’s box.

Fulham were perhaps fortunate not to go a man down in the 29th minute, when Harrison Reed slid through Christian Norgaard and put studs into the Dane’s ankle. Reed came over top of the ball in a 50-50 challenge and, despite first making contact with the ball, came in with borderline excessive force and in a reckless fashion. Nonetheless, only a yellow card for the on-loan Southampton youngster.

[ MORE: Christian Pulisic issues injury update ]

The start of the second half looked like more of the same from the first half: Fulham with an early chance and Brentford scrambling to stay level. Neeskens Kebano curled a free kick around the wall in the 48th minute, likely beating Raya if it was on frame, but only managed to rippled the outside netting.

Championship Golden Boot runner-up (25 goals) Ollie Watkins had the final scoring chance of regular time in the 70th minute as he fired from the edge of Fulham’s penalty area, but Marek Rodak was able to comfortably palm the ball over the crossbar. Still, the first threatening signs of life from the Bees.

[ MORE: Man United, Dortmund in talks over $140 million Sancho transfer ]

The decisive moment finally arrived in the 105th minute, and it came from absolutely nothing — less than nothing, one might credibly argue. Joe Bryan was tasked with restarting play following a foul roughly 50 yards from goal. Rather than lofting the ball high and to the back post, as Raya so clearly expected him to do, Bryan wrapped his left foot around the ball and whipped it toward the near post — as “near” as it can be from 50-plus yards. Raya was painfully slow to recognize the shot and tried to scramble across the face of goal, but never had a chance of getting anywhere near the ball.

Bryan doubled Fulham’s lead in the 117th minute. It was fast and fluid one-two atop Brentford’s penalty area and the left back tucked it away to seal promotion back to the top flight, and it turned out to be hugely necessary after Dalsgaard poked home a late consolation goal for the Bees with virtually the last kick of the game.

Fulham spent the 2018-19 season in the Premier League but finished with just 26 points in 19th place and were relegated back to the Championship after one season. Only time will tell if they’re able to stay in the top division this time, or if they’re a full-time yo-yo club.

Transfer confirmed: Ferran Torres to Man City for $26 million

Ferran Torres to Man City
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Reports sending Valencia youngster Ferran Torres to Man City have been burning red-hot over the last 24 hours.

[ MORE: Ranking the new Premier League kits for 2020-21 ]

Man City confirmed their capture of the 20-year-old — one of the brightest prospects in all of Europe — on Tuesday.

Torres, who came through the Valencia academy, tallied six goals and seven assists in 43 appearances (all competitions), including two of each in the Champions League, for Valencia this season.

He broke into Valencia’s first team back in November of 2017, at the age of 17, before establishing himself as a regular over the last two seasons.

[ MORE: Man United, Dortmund in talks over $140 million Sancho transfer ]

Reports out of the UK claim it will reportedly cost just $26 million to bring Ferran Torres to Man City, plus possible add-ons, as he had just one year remaining on his contact with Valencia. Torres reportedly met with City sporting director Txiki Begiristain earlier on Tuesday, adding further fuel to the fire that a move was imminent.

Torres seems an obvious replacement for recently departed winger Leroy Sane. He’ll join Raheem Sterling as one of only two natural wingers in Pep Guardiola’s squad, offering more tactical flexibility — not to mention, width — after City were fairly limited in the wide areas during the 2019-20 season.

Championship playoff final: How to watch, start time, odds, prediction

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Fulham – Brentford: Team news is in with the two West London sides set to do battle for a place in the Premier League in the Football League Championship promotion playoff final at Wembley Stadium.

We can hardly wait to find out who’ll claim the 20th berth in the 2020-21 Premier League season in the richest game on earth.

[ MORE: Predictions, Odds for Europe ]

Kickoff is at 2:45 pm ET Tuesday at Wembley Stadium.

Team news


Key players

Fulham leading scorer Aleksandar Mitrovic’s 26 goals were the joint-most in the Championship and more than three times as many as Tom Cairney, second amongst the Cottagers. He’s healthy for the first time after missing the semis with a hamstring injury.

Brentford’s Ollie Watkins scored the same amount of goals as Mitrovic, tying for the league lead, and he’s joined by Said Benrahma’s 17 goals (fifth in the league) and Bryan Mbeumo (eighth). The latter have combined for 16 assists, too. The Bees can sting.

Their seasons

Brentford won a even-straight league games to surge into the mix for automatic promotion but lost their last two, meeting Fulham on 81 points.

As for the Cottagers, Fulham finished the season on a seven-match unbeaten run which included five wins

Their playoffs

Brentford overcame a 1-0 first-leg deficit to oust Swansea City in the semifinal, while Fulham’s first leg win was enough to outlast Cardiff City’s strong second leg in their semi.

Odds and ends

Brentford beat Fulham twice, 1-0 at Griffin Park and 2-0 at Craven Cottage.

The Bees are favored to win the match at +108 odds, while Fulham carries +265 odds of a win.

Prediction

Mitrovic’s availability is huge for a Fulham side hoping to break down the league’s second-stingiest defense. Brentford feels like it’s the superior side but Fulham has been here and Cairney even scored the goal to beat Aston Villa in the 2017-18 playoff final. That experience is an X-factor, but we’ll still call Brentford 2-1 winners.

How to watch Fulham – Brentford

Kickoff: 2:45 pm ET Tuesday
Stream: ESPN+