A match against Sheffield Wednesday, middling in the league so far and as yet unable to replicate the fine feats of last season, served to show just how competitive the Championship is. Carlos Carvahal, unthinkably under pressure from some despite almost taking the Owls to the top flight last term, was unwilling to be as open as Huddersfield were at Craven Cottage a few weeks ago and, whilst the cynicism and gamesmanship certainly grated, Wednesday were mere seconds away from claiming a precious three points.
For all the play-acting, timewasting and going to ground easily, Wednesday had footballers who were very easy on the eye. Some of the interchanges between fluid midfielders and Fernando Forestieri, now firmly back in the Owls’ fans good books after hinting he wanted to leave the club during the transfer window, was mesmerising – and the quality of their football in the final third probably merited more than the goal that the Italian did stroke beyond David Button after a sensational passing move at pace.
This proved to be a match for battlers, though, rather than ball players. That’s why the constant scurrying and unquenchable work rate of Stefan Johansen, who picked up from where he left off at Brentford, came to the fore. The Norwegian midfielder might have gone off the boil at Celtic last term but the combative nature of his football, allied with how comfortable he remains in possession, makes him a vital acquisition in the helter-skelter Championship. The intensity only increased when Scott Parker, sent on from the bench with a quarter of hour remaining, breathed new life in Fulham’s challenge.
Slavisa Jokanovic was right when he said his side would have comfortably lost this game last season. Fulham’s usual avenues to goal were blocked by a dogged defensive display from Tom Lees and, despite having to wait until the 76th minute to test Keiren Westwood via a Tom Cairney shot, the home side kept playing, confident that their patient retention of possession would eventually eek out chances. That they arrived in a rush in a frantic final ten minutes was not a surprise – and Wednesday suddenly looked like they would buckle under the force of that late wave of pressure.
Fulham’s new sense of adventure is reflected in the fact that two injury-time equalisers have been scored by left backs at Craven Cottage this season. For Ryan Sessegnon against Burton, see Scott Malone yesterday afternoon. The full back had bombed forward willingly all afternoon and, when he found himself free to met Tom Cairney’s deep cross in the first minute of stoppage time, Malone didn’t fluff his lines. He’s now scored twice in last five league appearances, which constitutes something of a rich vein of form, when you consider 75 games had elapsed between his previous two goals.
Malone’s desire to get into the opposition box as the game entered its gripping denouement encapsulated the new team that Jokanovic is trying to build. The nature of this league is that many a game will be closely fought – and the margins between the top six and mid-table mediocrity are pretty small when you consult the table in May. Fulham’s patience and persistence was rewarded yesterday and that, should, at the very least – send the Whites into two crucial fixtures against Brighton and Reading in good heart.