Yann Kermorgant held his nerve in the midst of a desperately tense play-off semi-final to convert a second half penalty that proved sufficient to secure Reading’s place in the Championship play-off final.
The French striker was handed the opportunity to decide a tie that remained evenly balanced after a 1-1 first leg tie in the 48th minute after Tomas Kalas, the Fulham defender, needlessly handled inside his own area. Kermorgant did his job and then the Reading defence, and in particular keeper Ali Al Habsi, did theirs to ensure Jaap Stam will take his side to Wembley at the end of his first season as a manager in English football.
They will have the chance to return to the Premier League after a four-season absence when they face the winner of Sheffield Wednesday and Huddersfield Town. Their success marks a remarkable turnaround under Stam while for Fulham there was only a lingering feeling of what might have been had they made more of the chances that came their way.
Stam was forced into making two changes to the side that drew at Craven Cottage with goalscorer Jordan Obita ruled out with an ankle problem and captain Paul McShane suspended following his first leg dismissal. Jokanovic made just the one change, dropping Chris Martin to the substitutes’ bench after the forward had struggled to make headway against the reading defence and bringing in Neeskens Kabano to add more pace to the Fulham attack.
The feisty first meeting between the two teams had prompted mixed reactions from both managers with Jokanovic frustrated his side had been unable to make more of home advantage while Stam was forced to rue the loss of McShane that took the gloss off an impressive display. Both, though, insisted they had plenty of cause for optimism going into this game with Stam insisting the outcome hinged on which team could best hold its nerve.
There was evidence of tension in the opening stages of the game although it was Fulham that initially looked the stronger side with the movement of Sone Aluko in particular testing the home back-four.
The first opening, however, was created by Reading in the 13th minute when Joey van den Berg, in for McShane, sent a long ball towards Yann Kermorgant in the Fulham penalty area. The forward headed the ball on and then reacted first when it broke free by the penalty spot, firing a low shot that Marcus Bettinelli did well to push to safety.
That, though, was a rare moment of threat from Reading who were immediately pushed backwards and forced to rely on Ali Al Habsi six minutes later when Ryan Fredericks pushed forward for Fulham. The right-back advanced down his flank before cutting inside to deliver a left-footed shot that the home keeper did well to save.
And Al Habsi was again called upon to prevent his side from falling behind for the first time in the tie when he produced a fine double save to deny first Tom Cairney and then Sone Aluko. Cairney’s curling free-kick dipped over the defensive wall but the keeper made ground to beat the ball away and then recovered to deny Aluko’s close range effort that should have given Fulham a first half advantage.
There was a sense Fulham might come to regret their failure to add a more effective cutting edge to their neat approach play that was quickly reinforced at the start of the second half. Just two minutes after the restart Kermorgant led a counter-attack down the right-hand flank before delivering an early cross towards Lewis Grabban whose header drew another good save from Bettinelli.
Then a minute later, Kermorgant was again the central figure when he close attention hurried Tomas Kalas, forcing the defender to make contact with the ball with his hand. The decision to award a penalty was disputed by Fulham but Kermorgant retained his composure to finish comfortably.
John Swift should have doubled the lead five minutes later when he was presented with an open goal just five yards out only to direct his effort straight at Bettinelli. Another Al Habsi save, this time to deny Chris Martin, ensured the miss did not prove too costly as Reading held on.
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