A solitary first half strike from Stefan Johansen proved enough for Fulham to overcome Reading at Craven Cottage this evening – and courtesy of Jack Grealish’s late winner for Aston Villa – leapfrog Cardiff City into second place in the Championship. Slavisa Jokanovic’s men moved above the Bluebirds after extending their remarkable unbeaten league run to twenty matches, although they were never fully comfortable against the struggling Royals.
Whether the Whites were feeling a little leggy after their weekend exploits at Sheffield Wednesday or the pressure of being right on Cardiff’s tail took its toil will remain unknown, but it was Paul Clement’s side who had the best of the first 25 minutes of this encounter. The visitors, struggling battling to secure their place in the division after coming so close to winning promotion last season, made an enterprising start and spurned several opportunities to take a shock lead. Icelandic striker Jon Dadi Bodvarsson punished some early hesitancy in the Fulham defence to sprint onto a forward ball and touch a finish past Marcus Bettinelli, only for Tim Ream to hook the ball away off his own line.
The Royals passed up an even better opportunity a couple of minutes later. Bodvarsson was involved once again with the former Wolves forward finding space down the left to fire in a cross that caused chaos in the Fulham box. Mo Barrow completely miscued his shot but the ball fell inviting for Dave Edwards, whose instinctive effort was bravely blocked by Denis Odoi. Fulham’s only semblance of a threat had come from Ryan Sessegnon, whose low cross was scrambled behind by a stretching Liam Moore – so it came as a bolt from the blue when they went in front on 25 minutes.
The ever-impressive Matt Targett produced a peach of a cross from the left that located Stefan Johansen six yards out and the Norwegian midfielder tucked home the simplest of finishes for his eighth goal of the season. The goal seemed to settle a frantic Fulham side – and Aleksandar Mitrovic soon went close with a couple of headers in quick succession. The Serbian headed a Targett corner straight at Vito Mannone and then glanced a glorious free-kick from Johansen fractionally wide of the far post. A minute before the break the on-loan Newcastle striker again towered above the Reading defence but this time ballooned his header high over the bar.
Reading were reinvigorated after the interval and began the second half intent on pushing Fulham back. Bodvarsson almost latched onto an underhit backpass from Ream but Bettinelli scampered out of his area to avert the danger and, with former Fulham man Sone Aluko buzzing down the right flank with intent, Clement’s side always posed a threat. Mitrovic spun his man and slammed a shot against the post with Mannone beaten, but both that effort and Johansen’s follow up would have been ruled out by an offside flag.
Clement sent on John Swift to try and give his side more creativity in midfield and Liam Kelly’s devilish delivery from a free-kick almost prized open the Fulham defence, but, in a game that suddenly become far more open, Johansen wasted a couple of wonderful chances to put the hosts out of side. The first was all his own work when his driving run took him past a couple of Reading defenders but wasn’t matched by the quality of a scuffed finish that trickled wide, before Mannone made a magnificent save to thwart his low shot from Targett’s cross.
Whilst it was still 1-0, Reading remained well truly in the contest. A rare mistake from Ream almost allowed Barrow to nip in ahead of Bettinelli but, despite Clement sending on both Yann Kermogant and Chris Martin, it was the home side who finished the stronger. Lucas Piazon went close to scoring against his old club but Mannone juggled his ambitious free-kick, whilst Tom Cairney and Mitrovic both had shots blocked at source.
Jokanovic introduced Neeskens Kebano for the final ten minutes and, like at Hillsborough, the substitute almost had an instant impact. He produced a mazy run into the box that befuddled a couple of Reading defenders before shooting just wide of the far post and then narrowly failed to find Mitrovic with a cross. The Serbian then stabbed wide from an inviting Sessegnon centre with six minutes remaining, before Chris Gunter slid in to deny the persistent forward the clinching second goal.
Reading sent Liam Moore forward for to join Martin and Kermogant in a frenzied finale, but their attempts to rescue a point when undermined in stoppage time when Leandro Bacuna was sent off for a wild lunge at Sessegnon on the halfway line. This wasn’t the commanding performance that Jokanovic would have craved, but grinding out a crucial victory could prove invaluable, especially coupled with Cardiff’s late capitulation at Villa Park. With four games to go, Fulham are in the ascendancy.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks, Targett, Odoi, Ream; McDonald, Johansen (Norwood 89), Cairney; Piazon (Kebano 79), R. Sessegnon, Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Button, Christie, Kalas, Fone, Kamara.
GOAL: Johansen (25).
READING (4-2-3-1): Mannone; Gunter, Richards (Martin 75), Ilori, Moore; Bacuna, Kelly; Aluko, Barrow, Edwards (Swift 59); Bodvarsson (Kermogant 69). Subs (not used): Jaakkola, Holmes, van den Berg, Clement.
SENT OFF: Bacuna (90+3).
REFEREE: Lee Mason (Bolton).