Tomer Hemed’s first hat-trick in English football helped Brighton climb into the automatic promotion spots after the Seagulls hit a feeble Fulham side for five at the AMEX Stadium this evening.

The Israeli striker scored twice in the first half, once from the penalty spot, while skipper Bruno added Albion’s third of a busy evening just after the interval.

Hemed completed his hat-trick ten minutes from time with French winger Antony Knockaert rounding off the scoring in Brighton’s biggest win of an impressive campaign. Chris Hughton’s side are now assured a play-off place with four games remaining but are concentrating on going up automatically. This convincing victory leaves them only a point behind leaders Middlesbrough with a potentially pivotal final day fixture between the top two at the Riverside on the final day of the season.

As crazy as it seems given the final scoreline, the Cottagers made the more confident start on the south coast having come into this contest on the back of three wins in a week. Former Fulham goalkeeper David Stockdale had to be alert to keep out a low drive from Ross McCormack and Scott Parker – fresh from scoring a first goal in two years as the Whites beat Cardiff at the weekend – fired wide after bursting forward three minutes later.

Brighton began to get a foothold in the contest and nearly took the lead in freakish circumstances when Fulham goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli was forced to palm Beram Kayal’s miscued cross over the crossbar. Connor Goldson then headed a dangerous Jamie O’Hara cross away from the danger just before McCormack could pounce and the home side, unbeaten at the AMEX since January, took full advantage on the half hour.

They were fortunate to go ahead from the penalty spot – with Hemed firing home his fourteenth goal of the season after James Wilson, on loan from Manchester United, tumbled theatrically under a challenge from Richard Stearman. Referee ANdy Woolmer pointed to the spot – a decision which sparked a succession of furious Fulham protests – and, after a lengthy delay, Hemed sent Bettinelli the wrong way from twelve yards.

The Israeli international quickly doubled Brighton’s advantage by majestically heading in a Knockaert free-kick from ten yards. Fulham have yet to keep an away clean sheet since Slavisa Jokanovic was handed the reigns in December, and you could see why as Bettinelli made a pair of brilliant saves from Lewis Dunk and Wilson right at the end of the first period.

The Seagulls made it three when Bruno punished Bettinelli’s reluctance to advance off his line when he smashed a finish past the Fulham academy graduate after he had failed to calm an outswinging corner from jiri Skalak.

Hemed stepped up to send keeper Bettinelli the wrong way and four minutes later was on target again to double Albion’s lead by superbly heading in a free-kick from Knockaert from ten yards. After Stockdale had superbly denied substitute Lasse Vigen Christensen and Emerson Hyndman, Hemed – who had missed a wonderful chance to complete his hat-trick a few minutes earlier – deftly diverted an off-target shot from Dale Stevens having been stationed fractionally in front of the penalty spot.

Knockaert completed the rout with three minutes remaining when he curled in a fabulous fifth after a perceptive pass from Kayal.

BRIGHTON AND HOVE ALBION (4-4-2): Stockdale; Bruno, Goldson, Dunk, Rosenior; Knockaert, Stephens, Kayal, Skalak (Lua Lua 81); Hemed (Sidwell 81), Wilson (Murphy 83) Subs (not used): Mäenpää, Greer, Bong, Baldock.

BOOKED: Hemed.

GOALS: Hemed (pen 29, 34, 79), Bruno (54), Knockaert (87).

FULHAM (4-4-2): Bettinelli; Fredericks, Stearman, Amorebieta (Woodrow 75), Ream; Parker (Christensen 58); Tunnicliffe, O’Hara (Baird 64), Hyndman; McCormack, Dembele Subs (not used): Lonergan, J. Richards, Garbutt, M. Smith.

BOOKED: O’Hara, Fredericks, Christensen.

REFEREE: Andy Woolmer (Northamptonshire).