By Joe Harker
Fulham is so close and yet so far from automatic promotion. Their long unbeaten streak came to an end with defeat against Birmingham, allowing Cardiff City to pass them and take second place in the Championship.
Nobody was catching Wolves at the top of the table but instead of the safety brought by automatic promotion it will be down to the play offs. Four teams go in but only one of them will go up. There are 13 points between Fulham in third place and Derby County in sixth but it all comes down to who is better over two legs and ultimately the final.
The other two clubs are Aston Villa and Middlesbrough, both recently in the Premier League and looking for a way back up. As the team with the most points out of the bunch, Fulham have reason to believe they are best placed to progress via the play offs.
Another reason for them to be optimistic is their victories against the other three teams in contention. They won and drew against Derby and Middlesbrough, though they lost the away fixture against Aston Villa. Fulham can go up against any team in the play offs knowing they beat them earlier in the season.
Defender Tim Ream takes confidence from the club gaining the opportunity to secure promotion, pointing towards the long unbeaten run as something encouraging. He said: "You can draw on past experiences, you can draw on current experiences, you can draw experiences from the 23 games unbeaten.
"It's the play-offs - it is what it is for a reason. It's two legs, and you have treat it like two halves."
However, Derby are tough opponents to face over two legs and pundit Michael Gray believes that could swing it their way. He also wondered if Fulham's disappointment at narrowly missing out on automatic promotion could demoralise them and make them vulnerable. He said: "They are absolutely great games to look forward to.
"Derby have obviously picked up a little bit of form. Fulham, we all know they've had an outstanding season but will that hurt them, not going up in the top two?"
The winner of the Fulham/Derby tie will play the winner of the Middlesbrough/Villa clash. Both clubs have managers with plenty of Premier League experience and the Northern Echo suggests it could be a cagey affair as both teams try to frustrate the other and nick a crucial goal. At this point any sort of victory will do.