MATCH REPORT BY PHIL PULLEN
Fulham hadn’t put together four successive league wins in the seventeen years since a Barry Hayles hat-trick bamboozled Watford until this afternoon when a stirring comeback at Huddersfield tore apart the Terriers’ hopes of securing a play-off place this weekend and put Slavisa Jokanovic’s side just a win away from clinching a top sixth berth themselves. That outcome looked a long way off when Chris Lowe’s early penalty put the hosts in front – but, such is Fulham’s confidence of late, the swift concession didn’t appear to overly inconvenience the visitors. Stefan Johansen was imperious in central midfield, scoring twice capping a display brimful of his boundless endeavour, and Jokanovic insisted that the Norwegian captain would be fine for next weekend’s derby against Brentford.
The Serbian coach afforded himself a smile afterwards – as well he might given how unlikely the idea of Fulham extending their season looked as recently as February. After a tame defeat at struggling Birmingham, the Whites found themselves tenth in the Championship some eleven points off sixth-placed Leeds, but Jokanovic has engineered the kind of second-half season form that took Watford to the Championship two years ago. It isn’t desire and gusto that has characterised Fulham’s rise – the flawless possession-based football makes the Londoners easily the most watchable side beneath the top flight – and they could have scored double the four goals they put past Danny Ward this afternoon.
The manner in which they tore through Wagner’s side was reminiscent of the 5-0 win at Craven Cottage before Christmas. They showed commendable in character in shrugging off the setback after Floyd Ayite was adjudged to have fouled Lowe, who drove the spot-kick clinically past Marcus Bettinelli, punishing Huddersfield’s own attempts to play out from the back. Ayite’s clever flick eventually found its way to Scott Malone – and the former Cardiff left back found the far corner from an acute angle to give Fulham a foothold in the contest.
Just four minutes later, the away side were in front. Ayite made amends for his early mistake, driving down the Huddersfield right and drawing an ill-advised challenge from Jonathan Hogg inside the box. Tom Cairney stepped forward just as he had at Carrow Road on Good Friday and, just like at Norwich, sent the goalkeeper the wrong way with a precise left-footed penalty. The Whites might have just finally found a reliable man from twelve yards after all that trouble this season.
By now, Fulham were flying. The underrated Sone Aluko, full of persistence and no little skill, did sensationally to wriggle his way past two would-be tacklers tight on the left touchline and ferried the ball to Cairney. The skipper carried the ball to the edge of the box before teeing up the onrushing Ryan Sessegnon and, when the teenager’s shot was deflected, Johansen smashed home the rebound with the goalkeeper already committed to a dive in order to try and save Sessegnon’s shot.
The other side of Johansen’s game was in evidence just before the break. The Norwegian harried Hogg into a mistake outside the box having led the high-press from the off and raced in on goal, shrugging off a robust tackle, to fire home his second of the game. Huddersfield had just spurned a decent chance to reduce their arrears at the other end with Philip Billing sending a free header wide from a corner – but Johansen’s second strike put the game beyond the hosts’ reach.
Fulham might have extended their lead in a second half when they were largely content to sit on their commanding lead – but Sessegnon failed to beat Ward in a one-on-one when a splendid defence-splitting pass from Cairney sent the sixteen year-old clean through. At the other end, Bettinelli rode to Denis Odoi’s rescue – making a brilliant reaction save from Collin Quaner after the Fulham substitute had chested the ball straight to the Huddersfield forward. The biggest cheer from the home fans was reserved for news of Leeds’ defeat at relegation-threatened Burton Albion – but the Terriers will be terrified by the prospect of meeting Jokanovic’s side again in the play-offs in three weeks time.
HUDDERSFIELD TOWN (4-2-3-1): Ward; Smith, Lowe, Hefele, Schlinder; Hogg, Billing (Brown 54); Lolley (Scanell 54), van La Parra, Mooy; Quaner. Subs (not used): Coleman, Hudson, Cranie, Whitehead, Wells.
GOAL: Lowe (pen 4).
FULHAM (4-1-2-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks (Odoi 45), Malone, Kalas, Ream; McDonald; Johansen (Kebano 86), Cairney; Ayite, R. Sessegnon, Aluko. Subs (not used): Button, Sigurdsson, Parker, Piazon, Cyriac.
BOOKED: Fredericks, Odoi.
GOALS: Malone (16), Cairney (pen 20), Johansen (36, 45).
REFEREE: Andy Davies (Hampshire).