Tonight is a rare occasion when Leeds United could be tempted to take a point before kick-off. It is not the way under Garry Monk – no squad in the Championship has drawn fewer games than his – but the first priority at Craven Cottage will be to stop Fulham gaining ground.
Fulham have much to cover if they are to finish above Leeds but the results over the weekend left the West London club, in seventh place, as the only conceivable challengers to the clubs lodged in the Championship’s top six.
They are five points behind Sheffield Wednesday, seven behind Reading and eight behind Leeds with a game in hand over all of them. “My team are definitely playing with confidence,” said Fulham’s manager, Slavisa Jokanovic, after a 3-1 win over Preston North End on Saturday.
The same can be said of Monk’s side and the concept of playing for a draw at Craven Cottage is at odds with the way Leeds think.
The threat tonight is that Fulham move to within five points of United but Monk’s captain, Liam Bridcutt, is more interested in killing off the challenge completely.
“We go into every game wanting to win and knowing we can win,” Bridcutt said. “Tuesday’s going to be no different. We’re going there to be on the front foot, looking to win the game.”
Leeds and Fulham shared a 1-1 draw at Elland Road in mid-August, conjuring strange levels of emotion for a game so early in the calendar.
Fulham’s display was, in Monk’s eyes, as fluent and as easy to appreciate as that delivered by any team against Leeds this season and Jokanovic was aggrieved to see his team concede an overhead kick from Chris Wood in the third minute of injury time.
Wood needed that goal badly and reacted to it by cupping his ear to the Elland Road crowd, a pointed gesture to the sections of it who had targeted him for criticism a few days earlier.
Wood has not looked back from that finish and his brace at Birmingham City on Friday night took him to 25 for the season, the highest tally in England’s top four divisions. He is on course to become only the fifth player in United’s history – after Jermaine Beckford, John Charles, Peter Lorimer and Tom Jennings – to score 30 in one season.
Bridcutt completed a permanent transfer to Leeds from Sunderland on the day of Fulham’s draw in Yorkshire, the end of a protracted transfer saga. “I remember watching them from the crowd,” he said. “I said then that they were easily one of the best teams in the Championship in terms of the performance that they put in on that day.
“But in the Championship you’re never set and it doesn’t matter how good a team you’ve got or how good your performances are. It’s about picking up results. That’s how you’re going to end up at the top.
“We know they’re a good side and we’re not deluded. We know it’s going to be difficult. Every game from now until the end of the season is going to be massive.”
Fulham have a striker in Chris Martin who, despite his brash refusal to play in December with Derby County keen to recall him from a season-long loan, has taken his goals into double figures but the centre of midfield is where Jokanovic’s team tick and where Leeds were outplayed in August.
Tom Cairney, a former Leeds academy player, has seven league goals and nine assists. Stefan Johansen, a Norwegian who signed from Celtic, boasts similar statistics. Kevin McDonald occupies a holding role, allowing Fulham to exploit their pace out wide.
Monk’s midfield made hard work of a wet night at Birmingham on Friday and it took the second-half introduction of Kalvin Phillips, a replacement for Eunan O’Kane, to turn the tide. Monk opted to rest Ronaldo Vieira, omitting him from his squad completely, but the 18-year-old’s mobility and energy might suit tonight’s game. Monk also has a decision to make on Pablo Hernandez, whose influence in matches away from home has been limited.
Leeds, nonetheless, are effective at turning the screw on clubs around them.
Their win over Sheffield Wednesday in an early kick-off 10 days ago put pressure on the teams in or close to the top six.
Their 3-1 victory at Birmingham, 24 hours before Fulham hosted Preston, did likewise. A similar result at Craven Cottage would put them all but beyond Fulham’s reach, 11 points to the good with 10 games to play.
“We’re making it difficult for people,” Bridcutt said. “Last week (against Sheffield Wednesday) we were the early kick-off and everyone was hoping we were going to slip up. We didn’t. We showed a great attitude.
“Again (at Birmingham), playing earlier on the Friday, we made it tougher for everyone else.
“We weren’t at our best but to score three goals and win the game says a lot for the team and a lot about what the manager’s done since he came in. The boys want to go and progress.
“Teams are showing us respect now and making it difficult for us.
“Everyone wants to beat Leeds United because they know about the history of the club but it makes even harder when you’re at the top of the table. There’s a bit more determination from other teams to beat us.”