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Derby County tops Fulham 1-0 in first leg of playoff semifinal

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Fulham may be running out of steam at the worst possible time.

After a 24-match unbeaten run that lasted nearly half the Championship season, Fulham failed to secure automatic promotion with a final-day loss to Birmingham, and now the Whites find themselves in a hole midway through their playoff semifinal matchup against Derby County.

The Whites dominated 74% of the possession at Pride Park in the first leg of the playoff semifinal matchup, but former Stoke City and Crystal Palace striker Cameron Jerome hit against the run of play on 34 minutes, rising higher than Southampton loanee Matt Targett to head home the game’s only goal. Fulham built into the match in the second half, but could not find an equalizer as Kevin McDonald smashed the crossbar in their best chance with around 20 minutes to go.

Fulham has traditionally struggled against bunkered opponents, and the free-flowing attack was stifled by a quality defensive shape from the home side. Derby goalkeeper Scott Carson was also required to produce a fabulous save that kept out Tom Cairney in the 64th minute.

The match will see a quick turnaround as the two sides meet again at Craven Cottage, with Fulham needing a goal to force extra time and two to move on, while Derby could put one foot in Wembley with a single road goal.

Fulham, for their stunning form at times this season, has still never won a playoff match in club history, falling to Reading across two legs last season and now with a loss in the opening leg this time around. Whoever makes it through to Wembley for the playoff final will meet either Aston Villa or Middlesbrough, with those two sides set to meet for the first leg on Saturday at Riverside Stadium.

Sessegnon scores 15th as Fulham equals Man City unbeaten mark

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Fulham equalled the longest unbeaten run in the English top four tiers this season as it defeated sixth-placed Millwall 3-0 on the road to increase its streak to 22 games without a loss and moving the club into position for automatic promotion.

The Whites have not lost since December 16th when they fell 1-0 to relegation-threatened Sunderland. The unbeaten streak matches Manchester City’s run of 22 games to start the Premier League campaign before a 4-3 loss to Liverpool in mid-January broke the spell.

Highlighting the match was the game’s opening goal from 17-year-old Ryan Sessegnon, the young defender’s 15th goal of the Championship season. Just a week ago, Sessegnon was named a finalist for PFA Player of the Year alongside Harry Kane, Leroy Sane, and Raheem Sterling. Also scoring in the win was Newcastle loanee Aleksandar Mitrovic who has bagged 11 goals in 15 matches since moving to Craven Cottage on Deadline Day of the winter transfer window, sparking talk of a possible permanent move should the Whites find themselves promoted at the end of the season. Fulham has not trailed a single second since he stepped on the field for his club debut.

Manager Slavisa Jokanovic has the team firing on all cylinders, outscoring opponents 49-14 during the unbeaten streak and racking up 56 out of a possible 66 points, with just five draws blemishing an otherwise perfect record. The club has scored first in 15 straight matches, and has not trailed since drawing level in the closing minutes of a 2-2 draw with Hull City on December 30th. The only teams in the top four leagues to score more goals than Fulham since Jokanovic took over are Liverpool and Manchester City.

USMNT defender Tim Ream has been arguably the club’s most valuable player during the streak, locking down a defense that has picked up 11 clean sheets during the unbeaten run. Ream has played in all but two league matches this season, completing the full 90 minutes in all 41 of his appearances thus far. He has been voted Man of the Match five times this season by the fans on the team’s official website, most recently in a 1-0 victory over Reading on April 10th. He also grabbed the award in a 2-0 win over Championship title winners Wolves on February 24th, a game that saw the Whites out-possess and out-shoot the league champions. Ream had this stunning goal-line clearance in the victory over Millwall on Friday, saving Fulham’s bacon with goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli on the ground after an acrobatic save.

Fulham still has work to do in the Premier League promotion picture, despite the spectacular form. They sit in 2nd position as it stands, leading Cardiff City by two points, but Cardiff has yet to play this weekend, giving them a massive two games in hand. Fulham could ultimately be done in by a slow start to the season that saw them win just twice in the first nine matches of the season as the squad adjusted to a host of new additions. In addition, Fulham suffered a disappointing draw last time out against Brentford as the Bees scored in the 94th minute to deny Fulham all three points, a massive blow to their automatic promotion hopes. Still, Fulham would be considered favorites in any potential playoff run, with Aston Villa, Middlesbrough, and Millwall currently the other teams in playoff positions.

There’s plenty on the line for the club over the next few weeks. Should Fulham fail to gain promotion, it could be a massive blow to the club as Sessegnon could be lured away from Craven Cottage, with Jokanovic and playmaker Tom Cairney also likely to garner speculation of a departure over the summer if the club was to remain in the Championship.

Championship Playoffs: Reading steal 1st-leg draw away to Fulham

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After 90 minutes of the Championship Playoffs semifinal between Fulham and Reading, it’s Jaap Stam’s Royals who hold the narrowest of advantages after securing a first-leg draw at Craven Cottage on Saturday.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Arsenal alive and fighting for 4th ]

In Tuesday’s second leg, when no away-goals rule will be in effect, a home victory of any scoreline will see Reading through to the final; any draw would send the two sides to extra time; any Fulham victory would send Slavisa Jokanovic’s Cottagers to Wembley for the Promotion Playoff final.

The first leg was thoroughly dominated by Fulham, in terms of possession (58 to 42) and chances created (Reading took just three shots over the 90 minutes, with just one on target; Fulham, meanwhile, took 12 with two on target). It was Reading, however, who went ahead early in the first half, as Jordan Obita fired past Marcus Bettinelli from a nearly impossible angle, smashing the inside of the far post for 1-0 in the 53rd minute.

[ MORE: Full “Chelsea Champions” reaction, here ]

Fulham needed just 12 minutes to respond, though, as a wonderfully free-flowing bit of build-up forced Ali Al Habsi into a diving save in the 65th minute. Unfortunately for the Omani international, the rebound fell no further than five yards out from goal, where Tom Cairney was the man in the right place at the right time and headed home to equalize.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Reading’s earlier work was so nearly undone in the 80th minute, when Paul McShane earned himself a red card with a studs-up, knee high challenge on Kevin McDonald. The man advantage just about paid of for Fulham in the fifth minute of stoppage time, but Ryan Fredericks‘ angled effort flashed across the face of goal and just wide of the far post.

Championship playoff matchups are set

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With the final day of the Championship regular season complete, all eyes are now on the playoff as four teams vie for the final spot in next season’s Premier League action.

Brighton Hove & Albion and Newcastle are both in automatically, and now we look for a third team to join them. The teams to participate were all but set before the day, but the playoff positions were clogged, so determining the matchups was down to the results on the final day.

Reading took down Burton Albion 4-2 on the final day, leaving them in third position. They will take on Fulham, who finished 6th after one of the best second halves of any team in the Championship. The Whites were in 10th in early January, but stormed through the Championship with 11 wins and five draws over their final 20 matches, keeping pace with Newcastle at the top.

Sheffield Wednesday fell to Fulham at Hillsborough on the final day, but it doesn’t affect their matchup as they take on Huddersfield Town, who also lost at home. Wednesday also had a fantastic second half of the season, playing 1-2 with Fulham at the top of the form table the entire way.

Here’s a closer look at each of the four teams in the playoff:

READING

Reading’s Yann Kermorgant celebrates with Tyler Blackett (Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images).

One of the most baffling table positions of the entire season, Reading is considered by many to be the weakest team in the playoff despite finishing third. Their +4 goal differential gives a peek into how confusing it is to see them finish so high, but a closer inspection produces even more head-scratching. They conceded 62 goals this league season, far more than anyone else in the top 7, and at times look like a bottom-half team before peeking at the scoreboard and realizing they’ve won again. A perfect microcosm of this is their final-day result, a wild 4-2 win over struggling Burton Albion, a game which they were out-possessed and out-shot.

So where did they win their points? A scrappy team, Reading ground out 18 wins in one-goal games, while only losing five and drawing seven. They play their attack through French striker Yann Kermorgant, who has 17 goals on the season for sixth-highest in the Championship this year. They can also get goals from Jamacian international Garath McCleary on the wing or Chelsea youth product John Swift. Their weekly starting 11 features Premier League experience in goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi, and their squad features USMNT midfielder Danny Williams. Another recognizable name is former Manchester United central defender Tyler Blackett.

Reading was last in the Premier League for one season in 2012/13, seeing their way up after winning the league before immediately dropping back down. They also reached the semifinals of the 2014/15 FA Cup as a Championship side, losing to Arsenal.

SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY

With Fulham receiving the bulk of the attention for their attractive style of play, Sheffield Wednesday fans felt slightly aggrieved as their side has been just as good in 2017, topping the form table over the final few weeks with six straight wins until defeat on the final day. They are the opposite of Reading in every way, a defensively stout club that can still move forward and put on a show. This team is a serious contender for promotion, and can shut down teams on their best day.

Their leading scorer for the second straight year is former Watford striker Fernando Forestieri. The Argentinian never saw the Premier League with the Hornets after they were promoted, but he moved to Hillsborough and bagged 12 goals for the Owls this campaign after hitting 15 last season. They have a pair of former Sunderland players with Premier League experience in goalkeeper Kieran Westwood and striker Steven Fletcher, with the latter bagging four goals amid the late-season winning streak. January signing Jordan Rhodes has been a relative disappointment, coming over from Middlesbrough and only bagging three goals in 17 appearances. Captain Glen Loovens is an experienced central defender who spent four seasons at Celtic plus a year in Spain before coming to Wednesday four years ago.

Sheffield Wednesday was a founding member of the Premier League in 1992 and has spent much of its history in the top flight, but they have not been there since relegation in 2000, and have even fallen into League One twice since then amid financial trouble.

HUDDERSFIELD TOWN

Huddersfield celebrates a goal by Manchester City loanee Aaron Mooy (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images).

Another team with an ugly goal differential that somehow ended up in the playoffs, Huddersfield Town is a club that has not seen top flight action since relegation in 1972. The Terriers have come a long way since their 19th place finish last season, thanks in large part to manager David Wagner, a former United States international who has impressed as the first non-British manager in the club’s history.

Like Reading, at times this season Huddersfield has looked completely off the pace, and they’ll be happy not to have drawn Fulham in the semifinals, who beat them a combined 9-1 in their pair of regular season meetings. However, again like Reading, an ability to grind out wins and avoid disappointing draws, they collected their points throughout the year. They had a fabulous turn of the calendar year, with a 14-match run between December and February that featured 12 wins and a draw, but they enter the playoffs having come back down to earth. Their -2 goal differential speaks for itself, as the next team down the table with a negative goal differential is Aston Villa who finished 12th. Huddersfield finished the season with three straight losses and just one goal in those games, a bad omen for the postseason.

Leading scorer Elias Kachunga spent his entire career in Germany before moving to Huddersfield last summer, but the 25-year-old has struggled with calf problems of late, and his playoff status is unclear after missing the last four games. Fellow striker Nahki Wells has seen his goals dry up, with just one score in his last 13 appearances.

FULHAM

The Whites have gathered the most publicity between these four teams throughout the last few months, and are considered by many as the favorites to win at Wembley. Manager Slavisa Jokanovic has the team playing free-flowing, possession-heavy football that looks absolutely gorgeous. Their Achilles heel this season has been finishing, a big reason why they are only sixth in the table. They also have been awful from the penalty spot, dropping a healthy amount of points on the year thanks to missed penalties that would otherwise have earned a higher league position. The defense is leaky, but U.S. international Tim Ream has improved greatly as the season has progressed alongside Chelsea loanee Tomas Kalas.

Fulham is a completely overhauled squad over the past few years, completely unrecognizable from the team that was relegated from the Premier League in 2014 or even the one that battled relegation to League One last year. American owner Shad Khan has given his son Tony a large say in transfer dealings, and it paid off in a huge way this past summer. At its best, Fulham is fabulous to watch. Tom Cairney pulls the strings in the attacking midfield, and there is no focal point up front, with anyone from Sone Aluko, Neeskens Kebano, Floyd Ayite, Chris Martin, or Lucas Piazon can deliver a stunning finishing touch. In fact, they played a number of games without a true striker while Martin was either suspended or tapped up by his parent club Derby County. Their leading scorer is somehow midfielder Stefan Johanson, who has partnered with Kevin McDonald to produce one of the best central midfield partnerships in the Championship. 16-year-old Ryan Sessegnon has an attacking flair that has reportedly caught the attention top Premier League clubs.

What has baffled Fulham this season are sides that bunker in and defend. They have often performed better against the top sides in the Championship, as shown by their pair of wins over Newcastle. However, against teams that close down the lanes and put defense first, the Whites at times have looked lost. Their matchup with Reading is fascinating in that regard, having obliterated Reading 5-0 on one occasion this year before losing 1-0 the next time around.

Podolski goes out with super goal; Germany tops England

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The highlight of Wednesday’s international friendly docket was Lukas Podolski‘s final match for Germany, and the former Arsenal man did not disappoint his crowd.

But first, Canada plays its first match since unveiling new coach Octavio Zambrano.

[ MORE: Zlatan still bitter with Guardiola ]

Scotland 1-1 Canada

Zambrano saw plenty to like from his new side, as Canada went ahead early with a goal from former Scottish youth Fraser Aird. Toronto-born, the ex-Rangers and current Falkirk man got his first Canadian goal against the team he represented at U-17 and U-19 levels.

Norwich City’s Steven Naismith redirected Tom Cairney‘s shot to make it 1-1 before the break, but Scotland never found its way back into Canada’s net.

Germany 1-0 England

Lukas Podolski scored his 49th international goal in his final cap for Germany, and it was spectacular.

Joe Hart didn’t stand a chance.

The match saw big stops from both ‘keepers, as Hart thwarted Leroy Sane on a second half break after Marc-Andre Ter Stegen defied Dele Alli in the opening 45.

Podolski subbed off in the 84th minute to wild applause, but it must sting slightly to know you finished an illustrious career one goal short of a nice, round 50. We guess he’ll have to rest on his millions and millions of earnings and loads of on-field honors.

Elsewhere
Vietnam 1-1 Chinese Taipei
Philippines 0-0 Malaysia
Cyprus 3-1 Kazakhstan
Yemen 0-1 Palestine
Cambodia 2-3 India