Floyd Ayite’s unheralded aerial ability rescued a point for Fulham deep into stoppage time at the end of one of the most surreal matches of the season – and probably saved the Whites from an even sterner Slavisa Jokanovic tongue-lashing.
Fulham’s head coach prowled the Molineux technical area in disgust after his somehow contrived to throw away a 3-1 lead, his mood worsened when Dave Edwards lashed in an improbable fourth goal from the tightest angles that looked to have set Wolves on their way to a first home win since September. Only Ayite’s agility deep into stoppage time diverting home a back post knock down from Tomas Kalas grabbed a share of the spoils – but it seemed scant consolation considering how commanding the Cottagers’ control of the fixture had once appeared.
This pulsating contest showcased the good, the bad and the downright ugly of Jokanovic’s side. There were two sensational strikes to give Fulham a clear advantage, a rising drive from Stefan Johansen that arrowed into the top corner and a set-piece manoeuvre straight from the training ground that saw Tom Cairney volley home a short free kick from fully 25 yards with ridiculous ease. Some of Fulham’s football was scintillating but the perennial problems that threatened to undermine their promotion push were also in evidence. Jokanovic’s side squandered several good openings to put the game beyond Wolves – and the shambolic defending, which the Serbian had hoped was a thing of the past, returned with a vengeance.
Whilst Fulham have been far better at defending set pieces since the summer, the problem hasn’t been completely eradicated. Watching the way Wolves, whose main game plan appeared to be to try unsettle their visitors with intensity, tenacity and physicality, took the lead you could have been forgiven for thinking that very little had changed. Helder Costa swung a corner to the back post and Kortney Hause rose far too easily above Tim Ream to head into the net, with David Button culpable in allowing the ball to squirm under his dive. The Fulham goalkeeper was jittery this afternoon and Ream – preferred to fit-again Ragnar Sigurdsson – had a torrid time with the pair combining to almost hand their hosts a second. The American’s short back header placed Button under pressure from Noha Dicko but the goalkeeper appeared to have grabbed the loose ball only for it run loose. Button breathed a huge sigh of relief when Dicko’s attempted finish drifted harmlessly across the face of goal.
The piercing nature of Wolves’ breaks was rather at odds with the pattern of the first period, which saw Fulham enjoy plenty of possesion. With Kevin McDonald pulling the strings sublimely back on his old stomping ground, the visitors gradually recovered confidence and, but for a fine reaction save from teenage debutante Harry Burgoyne, Ayite would have swiftly levelled matters. The equaliser when it did come was a lightning bolt – the energetic Johansen catching Ryan Fredericks’ near post cross so sweetly to leave Wolves’ young keeper with no chance.
Six minutes later and Fulham were in front. Some balletic footwork from Sone Aluko created the space for Fredericks to whip over a devilish cross from the right and Ayite arrived to guide a header into the net from six yards out. Fulham’s cushion grew further still when Cairney crashed home a majestic volley from long range after Johansen had floated a free-kick from the left towards his skipper – and at that point the Whites’ advantage appeared impregnable.
But Wolves showed incredible fight and desire to scrap their way back into the contest. Lambert was bold, sending on Icelandic international Jon Dali Bodvarsson, and urged his side forward. The home side responded – roared on by a raucous support – and after Dicko fired in a snapshot, both Edwards and Matt Doherty came close to reducing the deficit. The Welsh midfielder’s effort was repelled by Button and Fredericks found himself in the right place to keep out Doherty’s rebound.
Then, it was Burgoyne’s turn to earn acclaim. The young goalkeeper, deputising for the injured Carl Ikeme and Andy Lonergan, produced a superb double save to deny Cairney and Aluko. He did brilliantly to block the Fulham captain’s strike from the edge of the box and showed great agility to spread himself and thwart Aluko at the near post just seconds afterwards. How Fulham would pay for their profligacy.
Wolves found the lifeline they craved midway through the second half when Dicko made the most of some panic in the Fulham defence, nodding down the second Conor Coady cross in quick succession and Doherty, arriving at speed into the six yard box, smuggled the ball home. Nine minutes later, Moulineux erupted when Ivan Cavaleiro surged away from Ream to reach an incisive Edwards ball and fire clinically past Button, who perhaps should have done better again. When Edwards somehow squeezed home his effort after Dicko made a nuisance of himself inside the box, it appeared as though the comeback of all comebacks was complete, but this Fulham side don’t know when they’re beaten.
Ayite’s late leveller salvaged a point but there was an unerring feeling it should have been far more. Jokanovic seemed slow to react to the way Wolves overturned Fulham’s superiority in central midfield during the second period – and when he did turn to the substitutes’ bench it was to introduce Scott Parker, whose ageing limbs weren’t best suited to the pulsating end-to-end encounter the game had become. There’s plenty to ponder ahead of Tuesday’s meeting with Rotherham.
WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS (4-3-3): Burgoyne, Iorfa, Doherty, Batth, Hause, Doherty; Coady (Price 87), Saiss (Bodvarsson 59), Edwards; Costa (Teixeira 87), Dicko, Cavaleiro. Subs (not used): Flatt, Borthwick-Jackson, Saville, Enobakhare.
BOOKED: Edwards, Coady, Dicko, Burgoyne.
GOALS: Hause (22), Doherty (65), Cavaleiro (74), Edwards (90).
FULHAM (4-1-2-3): Button; Fredericks, Malone, Kalas, Ream (Kebano 90+3); McDonald; Johansen, Cairney; Ayite, Aluko (Parker 72), Martin. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Odoi, Sessegnon, Sigurdsson.
BOOKED: Fredericks, Cairney, Malone.
GOALS: Johansen (33), Ayite (39, 90+4), Cairney (43).
REFEREE: Darren Bond (Lincolnshire).