Amidst all the speculation about data analysts, transfers and the long-term future of head coach Slavisa Jokanovic, Fulham’s youngsters turned in a spirited display of no little quality to come from behind and knock Premier League Middlesbrough out of the EFL Cup. Their spirit and desire was never in question – after producing a much improved second half display to cancel out David Nugent’s early header – and the winning goal, which arrived in the second period of extra time owed much to the youth development trio of Malcolm Elias, Huw Jennings and Steve Wigley whose countless hours of nurturing the next generation would have seldom seemed as valuable as the moment when Luca de la Torre burst past tiring Middlesbrough defenders, threaded a pass for Scott Malone and Danish midfielder Lasse Vigen Christensen, who arrived in London as a callow seventeen year-old, timed his run perfectly to finish from seven yards.
Jokanovic had already afforded the shining lights of his youth set-up an opportunity to shine in the first round at Leyton Orient. Several took their opportunity and there was another mature display at the heart of midfield from Dennis Adeniran, although it was less eye-catching on this occasion due to an early booking that meant he was less able to dominate with pure physicality. Tayo Edun recovered from a nervous start – and saw off a bout of cramp in extra time – producing one outrageous bit of skill to trick his way past a pair of befuddled Boro defenders on the byline, whilst Sean Kavanagh almost won the contest when his curling effort was headed away from beneath his own crossbar by Ben Gibson.
Aitor Karanka was left more than little shocked by Middlesbrough’s first defeat since March. His side were imperious in securing promotion from the Championship last season and have began life in the top flight impressively enough, but they seemed to relax after Nugent nodded in the opening goal on eight minutes, expecting the evening to pan out successfully. For much of the first period they moved the ball with confidence and ease and Fulham were far too passive, almost in awe of their Premier League opponents. The ease with which they had taken the lead when former Manchester United full back swung over a devilish cross that Jesse Joronen might have come for and Nugent rose to plant a header home characterised their fluid style, with Stewart Downing and Nsue to the fore in a possession focused midfield.
Fulham huffed and puffed but lacked the intensity that had typified their early season displays prior to the interval. Their best chances fell to Woodrow, denied by a wonderful piece of improvisation from Brad Guzan who thwarted the forward’s clever flick with his feet at the near post, and Adeniran who had a venomous drive from distance bravely blocked by the sprawling Ayala. After some exhortation from Jokanovic at half time, Fulham resumed with real purpose with Woodrow seeing a shot deflected over and Adeniran going close once again.
Suddenly, it seemed that Middlesbrough had a little less composure and time on the ball. Pressed back by a succession of Fulham corners, they buckled in the 54th minute. A surging run from central midfield from the increasingly influential Ryan Tunnicliffe saw him play a pacey one-two with Christensen and then ferry the ball across to Scott Malone and his low effort cannoned into the net off the unfortunate Julien de Sart, who was probably panicked by the presence of Woodrow in the six yard-box. The former England under-21 international almost made it two three minutes later profiting from that sublime bit of skill from Edun but he dragged his shot wide.
The game was now much more stretched. Twelve minutes from time, Fulham went close again when an impudent flick from Malone released Jozabed and the Spaniard, who shone in patches throughout his home debut, found Woodrow in the box before Edun’s effort was deflected agonisingly over. Boro should have clinched victory without the need for extra time when Nugent thundered a header against the crossbar with Joronen beaten following an inviting cross from Adam Clayton.
Extra time often several further openings. Jozabed almost marked his full debut with a sublime strike from 25 yards but his audacious effort was well held by Guzan before Smith spurned a glorious headed opportunity, somehow contriving to nod an excellent cross from Malone over the bar. Boro pushed forward themselves, but were caught out by Christensen seven minutes from time just as the spectre of penalties loomed into view.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Joronen; Grimmer (Kavanagh 56), Malone, Stearman, Ream; Tunnicliffe, Adeniran; Jozabed (de la Torre 104), Christensen, Edun; Woodrow (Smith 94). Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Sessegnon, Kalas, McDonald.
BOOKED: Adeniran, Kavanagh, Stearman.
GOALS: de Sart (o.g. 54), Christensen (113).
MIDDLESBROUGH (4-2-3-1): Guzan; Bapiste, Fabio (Friend 10, Stuani 90), Ayala, Gibson; de Sart, Clayton; Downing, Nsue, Nugent; Fischer (Forshaw 80). Subs (not used): Konstantopoulos, Barragan, Rhodes, Negredo.
GOAL: Nugent (8).
REFEREE: David Coote (Nottinghamshire).