Fulham squandered a glorious opportunity to close the gap on the Championship top six by throwing away a lead against high-flying Brighton and Hove Albion and allowing the league leaders to win a contest that even their manager Chris Hughton admitted they had no right to. If this was a taste of life without wantaway striker Chris Martin, it proved particularly putrid for a seething Slavisa Jokanovic.
The Serb’s side dominated for large sections of an enthralling contest, enjoying plenty of possession, but missed a penalty and passed up several presentable chances even after Lucas Piazon had given them a second half lead before two dreadful defensive mistakes barely a minute apart handed the Seagulls victory. It was particularly galling that the starring roles in Brighton’s comeback were played by a former Fulham player and a man that they strove so hard to acquire two summers ago. David Stockdale, jettisoned by Felix Magath at the start of his brutal post-relegation firesale, smartly saved Stefan Johansen’s penalty and, little more than sixty seconds after Tomer Hemed had converted a Brighton spot-kick, long-term transfer target Lewis Dunk arrived unattended in the Fulham six yard box to head home the winner after David Button parried Anthony Knockaert’s powerful shot.
Given Fulham’s progressive football and how comfortable they appeared when Piazon’s excellent finish threatened Brighton’s seventeen match unbeaten run, it was alarming to see how just how quickly Jokanovic’s side – who have been quietly gaining ground on the Championship’s pacesetters over the past five weeks – buckled under pressure. Hughton deserves great credit for his enterprising response to see his side go a goal down, having thrown on Hemed and Solly March in search of an equaliser, and urged his charges to up the tempo from the sidelines. The response was immediate and devastatingly effective.
Albion, who had too often been passive in pressing Fulham’s midfield during a first half were they were badly below-par, threw bodies forward and suddenly three orange shirts enveloped Kevin McDonald. The Scot’s skittish attempts to evade the challengers only served to present the ball to Brighton in a dangerous area and, after Knockaert had surged towards the penalty area, Ragnar Sigurdsson felled Hemed. The Israeli dusted himself down and nonchalantly rolled the spot-kick past a befuddled Button.
Worse was to follow from the restart. Dunk, who was perhaps fortunate to still be on the field after appearing to have kicked out at Piazon in an off-the-ball scuffle during the first half, demonstrated Brighton’s new-found ferocity by seizing on a loose ball and driving deep into Fulham territory. His pass located Knockaert in acres of space with Fulham’s centre halves having been sucked in by Dunk’s dangerous run and, when Button could only push the shot out in front of him, Dunk stooped to nod Albion ahead in front of more than 4,000 delirious away fans.
Such a scenario would have appeared implausible an hour earlier. Fulham began at a high tempo and Johansen lashed a sighter well over the bar from range before Sone Aluko had a shot blocked after a flowing move, but the home side received the perfect opportunity to go in front after a quarter an hour when veteran full-back Bruno handled the ball inside the box having flicked it up to try and clear the danger. Albion’s protests didn’t alter Stuart Attwell’s decision but, after a long wait, Johansen’s spot-kick was a tame sidefoot, although Stockdale’s save was still first rate. For all of Fulham’s command of territory and possession, that represented their only shot on target – and Matt Smith, picked to lead the line in Martin’s absence, was effectively marshalled by Dunk and Shane Duffy.
Jokanovic would have implored his charges to deliver more of the same in the second period, but the missing incision in the final third was located within ten minutes of the restart. Tom Cairney cleverly threaded a perfect pass through a crowded penalty area to Piazon, who curled a lovely low effort beyond Stockdale and into the bottom corner. The Chelsea loanee should have made it two five minutes later but he directed his free header from Scott Malone’s cross right at the former Fulham goalkeeper.
Smith was soon replaced by teenager Stevie Humphrys, but the young forward received little support as Brighton upped their search for a route back into the contest and it would be harsh to blame him for what was to transpire. There were warning signs with Sam Baldock, who had thrived on the straight ball played between the Fulham centre halves all afternoon, extending Button into turning aside his clever chip and Knockaert blazing wildly over at the back post when his composure uncharacteristically deserted him.
Ultimately, familiar fragility at the back cost Fulham dear. Heads dropped once Brighton equalised and, although there was a spirited response after Dunk’s header, the home side had left themselves too much to do. Basic defensive mistakes have dogged two disappointing Championship campaigns and are now threatening to undermine a genuine promotion push. Fulham also missed the dynamism of Floyd Ayite, who was laid low by illness, and the hulking presence of Martin, of course, but the most telling missing ingredients were a lack of nous and game management, which Hughton’s well-drilled Seagulls possess in abundance.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Button; Fredericks, Malone, Sigurdsson, Ream; McDonald (Kebano 88), Johansen, Cairney; Aluko, Piazon (Odoi 79), Smith (Humphrys 68). Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Sessegnon, Parker, Edun.
GOAL: Piazon (55)
BRIGHTON AND HOVE ALBION (4-4-2): Stockdale; Bruno, Bong, Duffy, Dunk; Stephens, Norwood, Knockaert (Murphy 79), Skalak (March 66); Murray, Baldock (Hemed 70). Subs (not used): Mäenpää, Goldson, R. Hunt, Sidwell.
GOALS: Hemed (pen 74), Dunk (75).
REFEREE: Stuart Attwell