A hat-trick from Ross McCormack put a serious dent in Middlesbrough’s automatic promotion push as Fulham won a sensational seven-goal thriller on a sunkissed afternoon at Craven Cottage.
The Scottish striker, who had earlier converted two spot kicks, sealed Fulham’s victory after a see-saw contest when he took advantage of Aitor Karanaka’s decision to sent Boro goalkeeper Dimi Konstantopoulous forward for a corner as he pushed for all three points by rolling home the clincher after breaking clear over the visiting defence. Defeat, which leaves leaves Middlesbrough hoping Bournemouth will falter in their final two fixtures, was harsh on Karanaka’s men, who gamely fought back from 3-1 down despite having George Friend sent off.
In an extraordinarily open affair, Boro attacked from the outset. Marcus Bettinelli was stretched by Grant Leadbitter’s rising drive from a short free-kick, which he managed to tip over the bar. Patrick Bamford was posing particular problems for Michael Turner, with his movement from a central striking role, creating opportunities for his team-mates. But Fulham were just as adventurous and Middlesbrough were indebted to Konstantopoulos after the Greek goalkeeper denied Hugo Rodallega when the Colombian forward had been found by Danny Guthrie after a dreadful error by Adam Clayton.
It was a surprise that it took until the stroke of half time for the deadlock to be broken. Shaun Hutchinson steered a short corner from Bryan Ruiz across goal for the stooping Turner nod in from five yards. The Whites almost doubled their lead shortly after the break when a smart piece of sweeping up by Bettinelli freed McCormack, whose cross found Rodallega but Konstantopoulous produced an outstanding stop to save his header.
Fulham’s two forwards were combining effectively and nearly linked up shortly afterwards but Boro got enough defenders between them and the goal to prevent a simple finish. But they caved in a couple of minutes later when Daniel Ayala’s daft barge send McCormack over in the box and the Scot swept home the spot-kick. Karanka quickly turned to his substitutes for salvation and a triple change brought immediate reward when Adam Reach took just four minutes to fire through Bettinelli.
But their hopes of a comeback appeared to be hampered when Friend was sent off after scything down Rodallega with a sliding challenge in the area. McCormack sent Konstantopoulous the wrong way from the spot to restore Fulham’s two goal lead – only for Middlesbrough to throw caution to the wind. Fulham’s ropey defending reappeared as the red shirts flooded forward. Lee Tomlin had a goalbound shot blocked at source, but the visiting fans had their belief restored when Ayala outjumped Hutchinson to head home a fine cross from Albert Adomah.
Certainly, the away side were all over Fulham. Bamford’s cross-cum-shot drifted fractionally wide and Ayala’s audacious curler had Bettinelli beaten but skimmed off the top of the crossbar. McCormack missed a glorious chance to kill Boro off and seal his hat-trick when he blazed over after being played in by Ruiz, whilst at the other end a clearance from Reach nearly caught out Bettinelli. The Fulham goalkeeper was beaten two minutes from time though when Kike’s header from a Leadbitter high ball looped over him and into the net.
Middlesbrough bravely went for the win that their automatic promotion hopes badly needed, but the corner cleared Konstantopoulous and when a hopeful shot was blocked, the loose ball broke to McCormack five yards inside his own half. The Scot surged away from the only red shirt anywhere close to him and sauntered into the penalty area. Konstantopoulous somehow sprinted back to his goal in time but McCormack rounded him and rolled in his third of an extraordinary afternoon.
FULHAM (4-3-1-2): Bettinelli; Hoogland, Richards, Turner, Hutchinson; Tunnicliffe, Guthrie (Fofana 76), Kavanagh; Ruiz (Woodrow 81); McCormack, Rodallega (Smith 88). Subs (not used): Kiraly, Burn, Voser, Roberts.
BOOKED: Guthrie, Kavanagh.
GOALS: Turner (45+1), McCormack (pen 55, pen 67, 90+4).
MIDDLESBROUGH (4-2-3-1): Konstantopoulous; Fredericks (Reach 61), Friend, Ayala, Gibson; Leadbitter, Clayton (Forshaw 61); Adomah, Tomlin, Vossen (Kike 61); Bamford. Subs (not used): Ripley, Nsue, Tiendalli, Whitehead.
BOOKED: Gibson, Adomah.
SENT OFF: Friend.
GOALS: Reach (63), Ayala (73), Kike (88).
REFEREE: Kevin Friend (Leicestershire)