Brentford vs Fulham: The Road to Wembley
Fulham v Brentford - Sky Bet Championship
A general view of the inside of the stadium in the Second half during the Sky Bet Championship match between Fulham and Brentford at Craven Cottage, London on Saturday 20th June 2020. (Photo by Jacques Feeney/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

As Ollie Watkins leapt onto the shoulders of teammate Josh Dasilva and "celebrate good times, come on" began to reverberate around the empty seats, you could have been forgiven for mistaking this occasion - the 3-1 win over Swansea City - as the one that secured Brentford their first-ever season in the Premier League.

Griffin Park, after all, had been waved off in style with a stirring comeback in the second leg of the play-off semi-final, and Thomas Frank's men were not about to let the occasion pass them by. The Dane had told his players not to leave the pitch until they were in the play-off final and here they were, rejoicing, with their ticket booked for Wembley.

A day later at the nearby Craven Cottage, the contrast couldn't have been greater. The final whistle had been blown on Cardiff City's campaign, with Fulham profiting at their expense despite a 2-1 defeat in the second leg. The defending from the hosts had been resolute, stoic, and by the end of it, they were a game away from retaining their top-flight status, but for whatever reason, these celebrations were more subdued.

After a few firm words from Scott Parker in the post-match huddle, the players fulfilled their obligatory interviews and trudged down the tunnel, some brooding after a sub-par performance, and some already preparing themselves for Tuesday's showpiece.

There remain stark contrasts between the finalists - two West London neighbours that both finished on 81 points - not least in their journey to the iconic Wembley arch.

Fulham, Europa League finalists not long ago, spent 13 consecutive seasons in the top flight from 2001 to 2014, eventually succumbing to the drop under Felix Magath. In 2018, the Cottagers would return to where they felt they belong,  but a combination of some erratic recruitment and naive tactical displays led to immediate relegation, leaving Parker to pick up the pieces in the Championship.

For his first full season in management, reaching the play-off final has been a success, albeit a qualified one given the windfall of attacking riches he inherited. The former England international has taken some flak when performances haven't quite lived up to expectation, but should he help Fulham escape the claws of the second tier at the first time of asking, then the critics will be silenced.

Propelled through the divisions by their data-driven recruitment system, Brentford's background is more exotic, and where momentum has ebbed and flowed throughout Fulham's campaign, the Bees' winter turnaround was more abrupt, more dramatic.

Like Parker, Thomas Frank has found his job under scrutiny at times this season. He is now prepared to complete the final step of a project long in the making at Griffin Park. 90 minutes stand between little Brentford and the pearly gates of the promised land.

The key matches of Fulham's season

Fulham 1-2 Forest

4-0 winners three days prior with over 80% possession, reality bit hard for Parker's men against Nottingham Forest. With Fulham controlling 77% of the ball, only the possession stat bore any resemblance to their dismantling of Millwall, but this time they were unable to use it to great effect, outwitted by Forest's counter-attacking gameplan.

Fulham had won three on the bounce going into that fixture, the game that cast the first significant ray of doubt onto Parker's possession-orientated philosophy. His counterpart, Sabri Lamouchi, was too savvy, and Forest not only defended obdurately, but were also ruthless in front of goal. 

QPR 1-2 Fulham 

Having lost twice in two critical games against Leeds United and Brentford post-lockdown, Fulham's return to action following the break did not pan out how they envisaged it.

The game against Brentford was decided by fine margins, and they made the running in the first-half at Elland Road, but it was hollow consolation. The defeats meant automatic promotion was now a long way off, their cause not helped by going down in the first minute at QPR three days later.

Two long-range strikes from Cyrus Christie and Harry Arter would secure a gutsy second-half comeback, but even then, the three points failed to ignite any optimism about a potential charge towards the top two. Nor did Josh Onomah's last-minute winner at home to Birmingham City.

Fulham, though, would win three of their next four, meaning by the time the final day came around, they had a genuine shot at automatic promotion. West Bromwich Albion had to lose and Brentford had to drop points, which the latter did, but the former did not. West Brom's draw against QPR extinguished any potential final day drama, though a loss wouldn't have mattered, with Fulham drawing at Wigan Athletic.

Onto the playoffs, then.

Cardiff 0-2 Fulham

For 20 minutes in the second half against Cardiff, it was almost as though a year's worth of Parker's coaching came into fruition, effulging all at once. 

After an evenly-split first-half in which both sides traded spells on top, something clicked in the heads of the Fulham players, and where before they had pondered and probed in possession, suddenly their play was turbocharged. Turbocharged tenfold.

Cardiff, the hosts, had no answer to the verve and zest with which Fulham began to knock the ball around, and Onomah's balletic flourish brought them their just rewards. Weaving his way through the two Cardiff centre-halfs, the midfielder regained his composure before slotting past Alex Smithies. Neeskens Kebano's free-kick - his third of the kind in three games - would double Fulham's advantage in the 91st minute.

The 2-1 loss in the second leg may well have dented their momentum slightly, but if Parker can rouse the squad in the same way he did at half-time in South Wales, then Brentford will have to produce something special to match them.

The key matches of Brentford's season

Brentford 3-2 Millwall

This was make or break for Frank. 2-0 down after 80 minutes to managerless Millwall, the cards were stacked against the Dane following an insipid start to the campaign; Brentford had amassed just 12 points from their opening 11 matches of the season.

He need not fear, though, as his side would rise from the ashes to overturn the deficit, with talisman Ollie Watkins stroking home the winner in the dying embers of injury time.

It didn't stop there. Emboldened by their comeback, Brentford would win 11 of their next 16 matches as the attacking triumvirate of Said Benrahma, the aforementioned Watkins and Bryan Mbeumo spearheaded a charge towards the top two. 

Fulham 0-2 Brentford

The curtain raiser following the three-month hiatus pitted the finalists against each other at Craven Cottage, and as was to be expected for two sides who have been bumper-to-bumper almost all season, the contest was evenly balanced, with blows being traded throughout.

That was until Benrahma, whose performances had been relatively subdued for the first of the campaign, decided enough was enough, and that it was time to put Fulham to the sword.

Creeping in at the backpost to scramble home the opener, the Algerian assisted the second, too, lifting the ball into Emiliano Marcondes's path who chopped inside and lashed past Marek Rodak. Much like the win over Millwall, the slaying of Fulham ignited a formidable winning run;  six games on the bounce, to be precise.

Brentford 3-1 Swansea

"I'm 100% sure that we're going to win," said Thomas Frank going into the second leg of their play-off semi-final against Swansea. It was fighting talk from the boss, but the kind of words that had potential to backfire.

Brentford had good reason to feel hard done by after the first leg, when the decision to dismiss Rico Henry for an innocuous challenge on Connor Roberts tipped the balance heavily in favour of the hosts. Andre Ayew's volley ensured Swansea capitalised on the advantage, leaving Brentford with serious work to do in their final game at Griffin Park.

Perhaps inspired by Frank's motivational tinder, the Bees came flying out of the traps, eager to right the wrongs of the first leg. Within 15 minutes, they had done just that. 

Set clean through on goal by Mathias Jensen, Watkins left the Swansea defenders eating dust to put Brentford level on aggregate, before Marcondes and Mbeumo pulled them clear. Rhian Brewster clawed one back to set up a nervy finale but the hosts proved too strong, too determined.

Finally, they have their shot at the big time. 

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