By David Williams
Junior Hoilett insists Cardiff City should hold no fear of Aleksandar Mitrovic – and it’s the Serbian warrior who should have been losing sleep.
Mitrovic has been a recurring nightmare for most clubs in the regular Championship season and Fulham will look to the league’s top scorer to add to his 26 at Cardiff tonight in the first leg of their play-off contest.
But Hoilett – who walked the detour to the Premier League via Wembley with QPR in 2014 – reckons it’s his own centre-backs, Sean Morrison and Curtis Nelson, who should be inducing the panic.
The pair have repaired a notoriously leaky Cardiff defence with just eight goals conceded in nine games since lockdown and Hoilett says: “I’m sure Mitrovic should be fearing them as well.
“Morrison and Nelson have been fantastic for us this season and if they keep playing like they have been recently, we’ll be fine.
“Mitrovic is their main man. But they should be fearing our attributes as well.”
It was only two weeks ago that Fulham beat Cardiff 2-0 at Craven Cottage, with Mitrovic winning and then converting a penalty.
He scored two more in Fulham’s 5-3 win over Sheffield Wednesday a week ago to give him 34 in all competitions this season – a tally no-one in the Bluebirds’ squad gets remotely near to.
But Cardiff – for whom midfielder Lee Tomlin is top scorer in the league with just eight – are more about the sum of their parts, rather than individuals.
“We’re focused on the goal to get back into the Premier League and this team is a brotherhood in that everybody’s willing to fight for each other to reach that goal,” adds Hoilett.
“We started slowly. But as things turned around, we’ve started picking up results and now we’re in a position where we can achieve that goal.
“We’ve always been the underdogs and everybody’s always been down on us. If we could prove the doubt as wrong it would be a fantastic achievement.”
Cardiff manager Neil Harris is aware that the prize of promotion may come with the added extra of a possible all-Welsh play-off final against rivals Swansea City, but isays the Bluebirds have enough to focus in simply trying to eke out a midway advantage against Fulham.
“We’ve had to work extremely hard in the second half of the season to push into those play-offs, so to come fifth is an achievement, but it’s not the success that we want as an end goal. We want our end goal to be a play-off final and victory in that.
“But Fulham are a monumental task for us over the two fixtures. They are a very good side and it’s going to be a real challenge to play against them.
“We can’t hide the fact it could be an all-Welsh play-off final and if it is, that’s great for the nation. But at the moment, the full focus has to be on two tough games against Fulham.”
His Fulham counterpart Scott Parker has thrown back Harris’s assessment that the pressure is on the Londoners because of the massive spend when they last went up to the Premier League.
“I think there’s been pressure on both,” said Parker.
“Cardiff were in the Premier League with us last year and they were eight points better off than us, to be honest with you.
“They finished above us in the Premier League, they’re in the same position as I understand.
“Look, it’s a massive game for both of us, expectations on both clubs are huge, so I think we understand the expectation from the outside and the expectation from the inside is always going to be great.
“Two games against a very, very good Cardiff team, you have no doubt about that, we understand what we face. We’ll embrace that and we look forward to it.”
Cardiff City have managed to win just one of their last 11 matches with Fulham in all competitions (D5 L5), a 4-2 win when both sides were in the Premier League in 2018-19.
Fulham remained unbeaten during the regular season against Cardiff City, winning 2-0 at home earlier this month after a 1-1 draw at the Cardiff City stadium back in August.
Only Leeds and Brentford (7) won more matches since the Championship restarted than Cardiff City (6), who come into the playoffs on the back of a three-game winning run.
Since their 0-3 defeat at Leeds back in June, Fulham finished the regular season with a seven-game unbeaten run (W5 D2) – their longest such run of the campaign.
Cardiff City have lost five of their last six Championship playoff matches (D1), failing to score a single goal in each of their last four, with this their first playoff campaign since 2012 (0-5 aggregate defeat by West Ham).
Fulham will enter the Championship playoffs for the third time in the last four seasons, losing out to Reading in the semi-finals in 2017, before earning promotion via this method in 2018 after beating Aston Villa at Wembley.
The team finishing fourth in the second-tier has earned promotion via the playoffs in just two of the last 21 campaigns, with Hull City in 2016 the last to do so.
Robert Glatzel has scored three goals in his last eight Cardiff City appearances, just one fewer than the striker managed in his previous 22 league matches beforehand (4).
Fulham striker Aleksandar Mitrovic has finished the Championship campaign with the most number of goals (26); indeed, despite playing the entire 2018-19 campaign in the Premier League, only Jarrod Bowen (41) and Lewis Grabban (44) have scored more league goals in the second tier than the Serbian (38) since his debut for Fulham in February 2018.
As a manager, Neil Harris has progressed to the final of the playoffs in each of the two previous campaigns he has qualified, losing out to Paul Heckingbottom’s Barnsley in 2016 and beating Stuart McCall’s Bradford City in 2017 – both with Millwall in League One.