In the frenzied aftermath of Neeskens Kebano’s last gasp winner against battling Wigan yesterday, the overriding emotion was relief. In the closing seconds of the stoppage time, the Congolese winger – who has barely been seen at Craven Cottage since missing a glorious chance against QPR last year – produced a couple of touches of class to extend Fulham’s hopes of reaching the Championship play-offs. The sense of reassurance amongst the Fulham faithful was tangible, but not to Slavisa Jokanovic. The Fulham head coach, a notoriously difficult man to please, was still angry in his post-match interviews, incensed by the way his side had given up a winning position so easily.
Jokanovic also allowed his frustration at the ultimately negligible impact of Fulham’s pretty passing football to surface for possibly the first time. The home side were always likely to have more of the ball against a side scrapping for their lives towards the foot of the table, but converting 73 per cent of the possession into just six shots on target clearly wasn’t good enough:
It’s not important that we have 73 per cent possession of the ball if you cannot fix the problem without the ball. This kind of present we gave them today is simply not acceptable. If we don’t improve this part of the game we cannot be successful.
Some of Fulham’s fluent football was very eye-catching but they utterly dominated the first twenty five minutes of the contest without even testing Jakob Haugaard until a fine bit of wing play from Sone Aluko created the first goal for Floyd Ayite. The lack of an unconventional threat to trouble two big centre halves in Dan Burn and Lewis Buxton was recognised by Jokanovic just twelve minutes into the second half, when he withdrew Chris Martin and introduced Cyriac and also threw on Kebano for Kevin McDonald. Cyriac didn’t snuff out too many opportunities in front of goal but buzzed around on the shoulder of the last Wigan defender and Kebano’s eager runs – as part as an all-African front four alongside Ayite and Aluko – eventually prized open the visiting defence as they tired.
The basic defensive errors that once appeared to be a thing of the past returned in the absence of Tomas Kalas. Tim Ream, who had been enjoying a much improved run at the heart of the Fulham back four, was turned far too easily several times by Omar Bogle, who on another day could very easily have had a hat-trick. The American centre back also opted not to play a simple back pass across goal to David Button in the first half, electing to try and play his out of trouble to almost devastating effect. Just as alarming was the lackadaisical marking that allowed both Max Power and Michael Jacobs so much room to score Wigan’s second at the end of the first half – such sloppy defending could easily have been punished by Bogle in the second period as well.
Fulham’s path towards the play-offs is now so fraught with danger that the merest slip-up may prove fatal. Where the current occupants of the top six have strung together five or six straight wins with ease, inconsistency is the Whites’ watchword. They also have struggled to grind out results when the going gets tough. Birmingham last weekend, when the Blues physical approach successfully nullified Tom Cairney and eventually provoked Ryan Fredericks into a brainless tackle, was a classic example. The Whites look like a wonderful side when given the time and space to play, but are fitful when opponents become a little robust – the Arsenal of the Championship, if you will.
The positive to take from the hard work that Jokanovic’s side made of what could have been a routine victory is that they did finally win ugly. Achieving results in the face of adversity – or even when you just aren’t playing well – is a hallmark of successful sides. Fulham have put away both Huddersfield and Reading at Craven Cottage playing some wondrous football but close contests when they have been below that majestic level have largely resulted in disappointment. This isn’t just down to bad luck, but belief and desire as well as sheer bloody-mindedness to drag the team over the line.
On that very point, the contribution of Scott Parker in the final ten minutes proved crucial yesterday. Removing Sone Aluko, who had given both Latics full-backs a real working over, in favour of a veteran holding midfielder at a pivotal point in the contest might have seemed perverse, but Parker’s experience proved invaluable at the death. He slotted in at the base of the Fulham midfield to provide protection that had been missing since the withdrawal of McDonald and afforded both Tom Cairney and Stefan Johansen the license to express themselves further forward. Up the other end, in the dying embers of injury time, his pass to Cairney was not the abdication of responsibility as time ticked by, but a recognition that a gifted creative midfielder might be better able to thread the ball through a crowded penalty area. It proved very prescient indeed.