Chris Martin missed another penalty as Fulham slipped further away from the Championship’s top six with an agonising 1-0 defeat at Reading last night. Slavisa Jokanovic’s mood would/n’t have been improved by the fact that the Royals benefited from an exceedingly generous spot-kick award to end their own mini-slump – with Roy Beerens following up after David Button had saved a penalty from John Swift – but the visitors were well below the high standards they have set this season on a freezing night in Berkshire.
Referee Stephen Martin somehow concluded that Liam Moore had been fouled in the box when he appeared to have backed into Tim Ream and it appeared as though justice had been done when Button guessed the right way and foiled Swift’s effort, only for Beerens to be in the right place to guide home the rebound. The Londoners still had a chance to salvage a point when Moore crudely halted a promising run by former Reading forward Lucas Piazon, only for Martin to blast his spot kick straight down the middle and see it kept out by Ali Al-Habsi. The Scottish international had seen his effort on Saturday splendidly saved by Alex Smithies and, incredibly, this was Fulham’s seventh failure out of nine from the spot so far this season.
Jokanovic cut a frustrated figure on the touchline as once again, despite Fulham’s domination of the possession, they lacked any real penetration or cutting edge. Al-Habsi was a spectator for the most part, holding nerve and stopping Martin’s late spot-kick and apart from that was only called into action to make largely routine saves, such as fielding a speculative effort from Michael Madl and holding onto Scott Parker’s audacious late chip from distance. Martin was often horribly isolated as the focal point of Fulham’s attack, with Jokanovic switching from a 5-3-2 formation to the more familiar system he has adopted for most of the season at half-time.
Reading’s best moments featured the lively midfielder Beerens. He swung in a dangerous cross that Swift sent dangerously towards goal, with Button doing well to palm the effort aside. Just before half-time, another Beerens cross was headed straight at Button by a disappointed Swift and then the Dutchman’s jinking run culminated in a swerving shot that Button did well to hold onto. The home side continued to press after the break and got their reward after referee Martin’s baffling decision to point to the spot.
Seeking to press home that advantage – and ended a run of three games without a win that had endangered their play-off place – the Royals pushed on. They almost found a crucial second when Garath McCleary nearly celebrated his recent contract extension in the grand manner, crashing a dipping effort against the crossbar after a surging run deep into Fulham territory. Tomas Kalas made two timely interventions, one of which thwarted a lively Reading counter-attack just as Swift looked set to pull the trigger from ten yards, and Fulham eventually roused themselves for a final assault on the Reading goal.
Having lacked movement in advanced areas and been ponderous in possession, the introduction of Piazon at least provided a bit of dynamism. The Brazilian probably felt he had a point to prove following his loan spell at the Madjeski Stadium last season and he had a shot bravely blocked by Paul McShane before winning the penalty that offered Fulham a glorious chance to grab a point right at the death after being sent tumbling by Moore in the box. Martin stepped forward to atone for his miss at Loftus Road, opting for pure power on this occasion, but Al-Habsi was equal to his effort – sending the ball ballooning into the air and Jokanovic’s frustration was complete.
This defeat leaves Fulham a full five points behind sixth-placed Sheffield Wednesday and badly needing to make up ground in their next two away matches at Burton and Birmingham City when the Championship programme resumes following Sunday’s FA Cup clash with Hull City. The Whites will need to work on their ability to finish inside the 18-yard box – and I suspect they’ll be plenty of penalty practice at Motspur Park in the coming days.
READING (5-3-2): Al-Habsi; Gunter, Blackett (Illori 69), van der Berg, McShane, Moore; Williams, Kelly (Kermogant 85), Swift; Beerens (Evans 85), McCleary. Subs (not used): Jaakola, Mendes, Meite, Samuel.
BOOKED: McShane, McCleary.
GOAL: Beerens (50).
FULHAM (5-3-2): Button; Fredericks, Malone (R. Sessegnon 68), Kalas, Madl (Piazon 45), Ream; McDonald (Parker 83), Johansen, Cairney; Aluko, Martin. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Odoi, Sigurdsson, Smith.
REFEREE: Stephen Martin (Staffordshire).