On the night that the Fulham faithful unveiled a catchy new terrace ditty saluting Scott Malone, the rampaging full-back added another chapter to his impressive first season at Craven Cottage by scoring the crucial second as Slavisa Jokanovic’s side successfully passed a tough test at battling Burton Albion and edged closer to the Championship play-off picture. The visitors upped the tempo after a largely undistinguished first half and, after Stefan Johansen struck shortly after the restart, a cleverly taken goal from Malone effectively ended the contest – and left Fulham just three points off the top six.
Much of the discussion following a relatively quiet transfer deadline day at Motspur Park would be how Fulham’s promotion push could be reignited in the absence of additional attacking recruits. Cyriac, who arrived on loan last night, was not part of the matchday squad and, despite another earnest display from Chris Martin, it initially appeared as though Jokanovic’s men could struggle to stretch a well-organised and disciplined Burton. For all of the visitors’ dominance of possession, they failed to force Jon McLaughlin into a save throughout the first half. Malone, showing the attacking intent that has underlined the adventurousness of this Fulham side, sliced a volley over the bar from a deep Tom Cairney cross and a marauding Kevin McDonald run culminated in the midfielder lifting a shot over the bar, but, barring a few explosive runs from Ryan Fredericks, Burton’s defensive shape served them well.
It was actually the home side who had the clearest opening of the first period. David Button bailed his defence out when Jackson Irvine nipped in to intercept a short backpass by tipping the winger’s shot wide and the Fulham goalkeeper saved smartly with his feet when Lloyd Dyer sprinted into the box after being released by Damien McCrory’s clever pass down the left flank. Several times throughout the first half, Slavisa Jokanovic cut a frustrated figure on the touchline, throwing his hands up in the air at another moment of sloppiness, and it didn’t take long for Fulham to heed his half-time instructions.
The opening goal arrived barely two minutes after the interval. Sone Aluko surged across the box with the ball at his feet, but even when Ben Turner stopped the Nigerian forward’s run on the edge of the box, Fulham remained patient. Cairney’s short pass invited the effervescent Johansen to stride onto the ball and drive a low effort into the bottom right corner with his left foot. Fulham had the ball in the net again six minutes later when Martin swept home the loose ball at the back post after another trademark run from Malone, but the Scottish striker was flagged offside. Johansen might have fashioned his second when another late burst in the box saw him test McLaughlin with a low drive, but the keeper got enough before that effort.
Burton discovered more of a cutting edge once Chris O’Grady had replaced former Fulham trainee Marvin Sordell and the former Sheffield United striker almost had an immediate impact. He turned the impressive Tim Ream to send a shot goalwards only seconds after coming on and Button then had to be alert to collect his flicked near post header, but the home side’s best spell of pressure culminated in a speedy Fulham break that saw McLaughlin deny Aluko as the visitors offered a timely reminder of their counter-attacking threat.
Jokanovic’s side wrapped up the points with the vital second in the 71st minute. A cleverly worked move saw Lucas Piazon and Martin release Malone down the left flank and, just when the Burton defenders were preparing to show the former Cardiff defender wide to prevent a dangerous cross, he surprised McLaughlin by lashing a drive into the roof of the net from what appeared an improbable angle. The Londoners then created further opportunities to extend their lead, with Piazon latching onto a pass from Johansen and seeing a low shot beaten away by McLaughlin, before an impudent Cairney chip landed on the roof of the net.
Burton kept on battling until the end, delivering the sort of commitment that mirrors Nigel Clough’s own desire to continue his outstanding work with a club very close to his heart, and might have made stoppage time a little more intriguing had O’Grady not snatched at a half chance when Fulham failed to clear a corner. As it was, Clough admitted that ‘a gulf in class’ between the sides eventually told when the visitors moved the ball a little quicker than the pedestrian pace that had been the predominant feature of a listless first-half display.
BURTON ALBION (4-2-3-1): McLaughlin; Flanagan, Mousinho, Turner, McCrory; Palmer, Murphy (Tom Naylor 74); Akins, Irvine, Dyer (Will Miller 78); Sordell (O’Grady 63). Subs (not used): Bywater, Barker, Williamson, Myers-Harness.
FULHAM (4-1-2-3): Button; Fredericks (Odoi 90), Malone, Kalas, Ream; McDonald; Johansen, Cairney; Piazon, Aluko (Ayite 85), Martin. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Madl, R. Sessegnon, Parker, Petsos.
GOALS: Johansen (48), Malone (71).
REFEREE: Tony Harrington.