Neeskens Kebano is making a habit of producing crucial cameos that breathe new life into Fulham’s pursuit of the Championship play-off places. Four days after stepping off the Craven Cottage bench to kill off Wigan Athletic’s brave resistance in the final seconds of stoppage time, the Congolese winger was introduced to offer a new dimension to Fulham’s attacking play against a Nottingham Forest side who were threatening to overwhelm the Whites at the other end of the pitch. Kebano’s impact was almost immediate – racing onto a lofted through ball from Sone Aluko and touching it beyond Vladimir Stojkovic to score the goal that settled another thrilling contest on the banks of the Thames, although the last touch came off the luckless Forest defender Jack Hobbs.
At the end of an enthralling encounter, defeat was probably harsh on an enterprising Forest side, expertly managed by former Fulham forward Gary Brazil. Brazil, something of a marmite footballer during his time in west London was one of the rare sparks of quality during one of the toughest periods of the club’s history, is on his second spell in caretaker charge of Forest, whilst another boardroom saga unravels. He has brought through several bright academy prospects, including lively winger Ben Brereton – who headed home his second senior goal in the second half – and Brazil’s side began playing bright football at such a confident tempo that Slavisa Jokanovic was forced to substitute a bewildered Ragnar Sigurdsson with less than half an hour gone.
The visitors might have scored with their first attack after just forty seconds. Matty Cash burst in from the right flank but slipped as he struck his shot and the ball rattled safely wide of David Button’s goal. Fulham’s reprieve lasted barely a minute. Much was made of Ross McCormack’s return to the Cottage – and the Scottish international striker made his full Forest debut at the ground where he had scored 43 goals in 100 appearances for the Whites – but it was another former Fulham star who came back to make a mark. Pajtim Kasami’s first-time volley after a dreadful attempt at control from Sigurdsson took a nick off the Fulham defender on its way into the top corner, but you couldn’t argue that Forest didn’t fully merit their lead.
Brazil’s side could have capitalised further on Fulham’s sleepy start. A fluffed clearance from Button presented Ben Osborn with the opportunity to lob the out-of-position goalkeeper from fully 40 yards, only for Button to reappear just in the nick of time and field the effort. The home side spluttered out of first gear with only a blocked shot from Aluko and a fierce cross from teenager Ryan Sessegnon that stung the palms of Stojkovic registering as efforts of any real note, much of the chagrin of the home crowd.
A goal of excellent quality levelled matters right on the half hour mark. After a nice interchange with Aluko, Stefan Johansen spotted another Sessegnon raid down the left and the sixteen year-old did superbly to pick out the late run of Cairney, who had advanced into the penalty area and swept home a precise finish into the bottom corner. The goal offered the Craven Cottage crowd a real lift and an enlivened Fulham side went in front just three minutes later. Their second owed everything to both the persistence and silky skills of Lucas Piazon, who had switched to the right flank, and totally bamboozled the Forest defence. The Brazilian latched onto a splendid flick from Floyd Ayite, deployed as the main forward instead of Chris Martin and Cyriac, and shimmied past two would-be tacklers before firing a low shot past Stojkovic. Such was the surgical precision of his running you would have been forgiven for thinking you were watching the fleet-footedness of Steed Malbranque.
Jokanovic’s team talk would have stressed the importance of consolidating the half-time advantage Fulham were fortunate to hold, but another basic defensive mistake soon rendered that message obsolete. Daniel Fox’s floated cross eluded Tim Ream and Brereton had the freedom of Hammersmith and Fulham to power an excellent header beyond Button. It was just the fillip that Brazil would have ordered for Forest at the break and their refusal to stick eleven men behind the ball in response to their hammering at Carrow Road on Saturday was justly rewarded.
The game then could have gone either way. Aluko almost wriggled his way through a sea of Forest defenders only for his shot to be smothered by Stojkovic, whilst Kasami nearly restored the away side’s lead with his second of the evening after tricking his way into a dangerous position with some nimble footwork but the Swiss midfielder found the side netting from an acute angle. McCormack’s clearest sight of goal arrived midway through the second half but, presented with an opportunity to display his set-piece prowess from 25 yards, the former Fulham forward found only the Putney End with a curling free-kick.
The home side seized the initiative with eighteen minutes to play. Some fine first-time football saw Johansen lift a through ball into Cairney on the edge of the box and the Fulham captain’s lay-off was cushioned perfectly for Aluko to chip a ball beyond the Forest back line for the newly-arrived Kebano to race onto. The substitute won the dash and flicked the ball past an onrushing Stojkovic – with Hobbs’ desperate attempt to effect a clearance only sending the ball careering into the bottom corner.
That set up a frenzied finish that delivered chances at either end in five pulsating minutes of injury-time. David Vaughan flashed a drive fractionally wide as Forest pressed for an equaliser, before Kebano surged clear of a tiring visiting defence, sidefooted his finish past the goalkeeper but saw the ball skim the outside of the post on its way wide. The frustrated proved to be only temporary as Fulham’s second five-goal thriller in a matter of days kept their pursuit of the top six on track.
FULHAM (4-1-2-3): Button; Odoi, R. Sessegnon, Sigurdsson (Madl 28), Ream; McDonald; Johansen, Cairney; Aluko, (Parker 84), Piazon, Ayité (Kebano 64). Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Malone, Cyriac, Martin.
BOOKED: Madl, McDonald.
GOALS: Cairney (30), Piazon (33), Hobbs (o.g. 72).
NOTTINGHAM FOREST (3-5-2): Stojkovic; Worrall, Hobbs, Fox; Cash, Kasami (Vaughan 79), Tshibola (Clough 78), Osborn, Pinillos (Assombalonga 85′); Brereton, McCormack. Subs (not used): Smith, Carayol, Ahmedhodzic, Vellios.
GOALS: Kasami (2), Brereton (47).
REFEREE: James Linington (Isle of Wight).