Report by Sam Holter
Fulham’s promotion aspirations received a serious reality check this afternoon at the AMEX Stadium as Slavisa Jokanovic’s were punished for failing to make the most of their first half dominance by second-placed Brighton. Albion, badly below par in the first 45 minutes, upped the intensity after the break and two terrific strikes from the potent strike partnership of Sam Baldock and Glenn Murray secured the home side’s twelfth straight league victory.
The defeat was tough to take for Jokanovic’s side – especially given just how great their control and fluency was in the first half. The visitors settled the quickest, dominating possession, with Floyd Ayite – recalled to the starting line-up today in place of Lucas Piazon – a real livewire down the right wing. Fulham had served notice of their intent when Sone Aluko burst into the box only to be denied by a combination of David Stockdale and the offside flag, but they took the lead from a corner when former Fulham keeper Stockdale lost his footing as he tried to claim Stefan Johansen’s ball in and Kevin McDonald’s downward header from beyond the back post trickled over the line before Steve Sidwell could clear.
Despite his glaring error, Albion had Stockdale for thank for their task not being any more difficult by the half-time whistle. The former England under-21 international, who has already kept nine clean sheets in the Championship this season, produced a fine one-handed save to turn aside a deflected strike from Ayite and then thwarted Scott Malone from close range as the Fulham left back raced through on goal. The home side seemed subdued and offered little in response, with one drive from Jamie Murphy being tipped over by David Button and another ambitious effort from long-range off target.
There was a marked difference about Brighton’s play after the break with more tenacity about their tackling and a greater purpose in the closing down, which cut down the amount of time Fulham’s midfield had to play. The more aggressive attitude paid dividends seven minutes in the second period when, after benefiting from the dubious award of a free-kick, Baldock lashed home an unstoppable volley from the edge of the box after Tomas Kalas could only half clear a knock-down from Dale Stephens.
The goal lifted the home supporters and whole tone of the contest changed after that. Suddenly, Brighton looked far more dangerous – and the game also became a scrappy and bitty affair. Both sides saw several players cautioned, with both Murray and Stefan Johansen booked for using their arms against opponents, and it became much more of an attritional battle. Stockdale produced another fine reaction save to keep out Ayite’s rising drive at his near post, but the home side were seeing much more of the ball by now. Baldock almost put Albion back in front from close range, when his snapshot deflected off Kalas and rebounded back to Button off the base of the post, but Fulham failed to heed the huge let off.
Just four minutes later – and with league leaders Newcastle trailing at home – Brighton turned the game completely on its head. Baldock did brilliantly to carve out a dangerous cross from the left but not one of three red shirts picked up Murray, who clinically rifled his finish home from around the penalty spot, as Fulham looked forlornly for an offside flag that never came. For a manager who has drilled his teams majestically on defensive positioning on the training ground, Jokanovic will have been incandescent at both the freedom which a master poacher like Murray was afforded and Malone’s questionable decision to try and play him offside in such a dangerous area.
The final ten minutes whizzed by in blur. Belatedly, Jokanovic threw on Ryan Fredericks, Lucas Piazon and Neeskens Kebano in search of an equaliser but Fulham failed to carve out a clear chance despite plenty of late pressure. The closest the Cottagers came to salvaging a point at the death was when Malone, their saviour in injury-time last week against Sheffield Wednesday went to ground in the box after a challenge from substitute Jiri Skalak, but referee Keith Stroud waved away Fulham’s desperate penalty appeals.
BRIGHTON AND HOVE ALBION (4-4-2): Stockdale; Bruno, Bong, Duffy, Dunk; Sidwell, Stephens, Murphy, Knockaert (Skalak 71); Murray, Baldock (Norwood 84). Subs (not used): Maenpaa, Pocognoli, Goldson, March, Hemed.
BOOKED: Dunk, Sidwell, Stephens.
FULHAM (4-1-2-3): Button; Odoi (Fredericks 84), Malone, Kalas, Sigurdsson; McDonald; Cairney, Johansen; Aluko (Kebano 84), Ayite (Piazon 84), Martin. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Ream, Sessegnon, Smith.
BOOKED: Sigurdsson, Button, Martin, McDonald, Fredericks.
REFEREE: Keith Stroud (Bournemouth).