In light of midfield maestro Tom Cairney’s absence from Fulham’s starting fold, many a Whites fan would have been left scratching their head to who would temporarily take the batten from the influential Scotsman.
In terms of raw creativity, Slavisa Jokanovic’s options in the middle of the park are fairly limited, with a more holding, conservative attitude to administering play being exemplified by the likes of Kevin McDonald, Oliver Norwood and Ibrahima Cisse – but what of Stefan Johansen?
For many, of course, the Norwegian national captain is undoubtedly hailed as one of the club’s most innovative outlets, and Fulham have certainly been crying out for that spark of ingenuity of late, with goals and victories being scarce. However it’s clear to see that in regards to the last two domestic outings in particular, ‘StefJo’ has valiantly taken it upon himself to fill the demonstrative void left by the South-West Londoners’ enigmatic number 10, exemplifying why he is invaluable to Fulham’s cause for the heavily desired promotion push.
Putting the game to bed against an ever threatening Nottingham Forest outfit on the 26th September was imperative, as unfortunately Fulham have indeed been plagued with conceding in the dying embers of proceedings in recent weeks. However, on this occasion at the City Ground, it was the Cottagers’ turn to have the last laugh.
The 26-year-old’s expertly weighted free-kick on the edge of Forest’s box arced over a powerless defending wall and rendered Jordan Smith hapless as he clawed at thin air, a divine execution which sent Fulham’s following faithful into raptures and secured a 3-1 win on the road – the perfect tonic before the highly anticipated west London derby showdown with their rivals from Shepherds Bush the following Friday evening.
Queens Park Rangers were gunning to burst Fulham’s bubble after their emphatic victory in Nottingham, and with the ‘Hoops’ stuttering domestically themselves, Ian Holloway’s contingent had a point to prove against their fierce local counterparts on their home patch.
The spectating hoards at Loftus Road were waiting eagerly with bated breath for a piece of magic with the 1-0 scoreline dangling precariously in the Whites’ favour, a moment to ignite the encounter in the final phases of the tie. One of the probing clubs was gifted the opportunity to lift the roof in the 85th minute – arise, Sir Johansen. Finding a pocket of space on the parameter of QPR’s penalty area, the Norwegian midfielder composed himself, looked Alex Smithies in the eyes and dispatched a low, pinpointed effort into the bottom right corner of the goal.
As the net bulged, 2,600-or-so jittery Fulham fans entered a state of sheer euphoria; they were 2-0 up, and though the ‘R’s’ did manage to notch a goal of their own in the second of the nine additional minutes through Conor Washington, Johansen’s ruthless, Cairney-esque intelligence with the goal at his mercy ultimately gave his club the bragging rights and supremacy with a glorious 2-1 victory, yet again away from Craven Cottage.
Johansen’s strike meant that Fulham entered the international break with their tails up. Demonstrated by the Nordic playmaker’s exemplary efforts, snatching 6 points from a possible 6 in two consecutive away fixtures is a measure of the growing, spirited character within Slavisa Jokanovic’s resurgent set-up. An equally relentless ethic will act as a building block for Fulham’s anticipated rise to the summit of the Championship table.
Lauded by many for their slick, fluid, seamless style on the pitch, it’s inevitable that the Whites will bother the pack which currently lead the way, and if Johansen in particular – who has scored 3 goals himself from the middle of the park so far this term – can maintain his sculpted, calculated manner on and off the ball, Fulham will be in much better stead to ruffle a few more feathers as the weeks progress and the season unfurls.