Slavisa Jokanovic had banned the end-of-season lap of honour ahead of this west London derby, eschewing English football’s traditions in favour of an example of the arch-pragmatism that has carried Fulham towards the Championship’s top six after a sensational post-Christmas run. You couldn’t fault his logic that there was nothing to celebrate yet – and that the Serbian hoped to pay tribute to the supporters after another home fixture – and Jokanovic was still trying to deny that the Whites had wrapped up a play-off spot after a pulsating draw that leaves Leeds needing the sort of final-day swing psephologists only dream of. But there was a hint of a smile – half an acknowledgement that Fulham were very close indeed.
This game was a microcosm of Fulham’s exhilarating season. Jokanovic has built a side totally unrecognisable to the ones that have ended their past two Championship campaigns scrapping for their lives at the foot of the table, taught to pass the ball patiently around their opponents and containing players who now fully subscribe to the club’s adventurous way of playing. They haven’t been clinical enough to seal automatic promotion or threaten the top six until the season’s closing weeks – Floyd Ayite spurned two glorious first half chances and skipper Tom Cairney – squandered another penalty – but such was their confidence on the ball that you fancied another opening was just around the corner.
That the home side didn’t built on the impetus provided by Cairney’s terrifically taken eighth minute opener was credit to Dean Smith’s visitors. Brentford, despite having little besides their role of local party poopers to play for, didn’t take the easy option and plant men behind the ball. They came to play as well, confident in their own expansive game, after Smith’s side had strung together a succession of excellent results – and the Bees might have extended their own fine recent record at Craven Cottage in the final quarter had Marcus Bettinelli not produced a number of fine saves.
This was an open, attractive game virtually free of the usual niggle that accompanies local derbies. Fulham opened the scoring from their first real attack, with the energetic Sone Aluko sending Ryan Sessegnon clear with a fabulous through ball. The sixteen-year-old, one of the sensations of the season, did superbly to keep his composure and pick out Cairney with a measured cut-back – and the former Blackburn Rovers midfielder finished flawlessly to put the Whites ahead. Cairney was soon testing the Brentford defence again, bending one effort over the bar and seeing another goalbound strike diverted away from the net.
Ayite won’t want to be reminded of his profligacy in front of goal. The Togolese winger, operating as a lone forward in place of the suspended Chris Martin, wastefully drilled a one-one-one high into the Putney End after being sent clear by Scott Malone’s superb pass and then sent a free header wide of the target. Brentford, meanwhile, were gradually getting a foothold back into the contest. Bettinelli had smartly saved Lasse Vibe’s snapshot and Jota, a regular thorn in Fulham’s side in recent years, was dropping into dangerous areas but it still came as something of a surprise when the Bees equalised.
The Brentford goal might have come from generous Fulham defending, but the exquisite nature of their interplay during a lightning counter-attack has to be commended. Nico Yennaris drove forward from a deep position and swapped probing passes with Konstantin Kerschbaumer on the edge of the box, bursting into the penalty area between Fulham defenders, before unleashing a rising and unstoppable shot into the top right corner. It was a fine strike – and the defensive midfielder’s desire to carry an attacking threat fully merited his stunning intervention.
Jokanovic’s side still had a guilt-edged chance to end the half in front, however, when the lively Ayite was crudely chopped down in the box by Yoann Barbet. Cairney had scored two successive penalties in recent weeks but it wasn’t third time lucky as Dan Bentley guessed correctly and, not only made a fine reaction save low to his left, but bravely threw himself in smother the rebound as the Fulham captain dived in to try and tuck home the loose ball.
The second half continued in much the same manner. Two Cairney curlers were brilliantly repelled by the excellent Bentley before Johansen bent an effort fractionally wide from just outside the box. Malone surged forward down the left, first almost catching the Brentford goalkeeper unawares with an overhit cross, before slipping in Aluko, but the Nigerian failed to both keep his feet or prod the ball past Bentley. Fulham lost a bit of forward momentum when Lucas Piazon replaced Sessegnon and Brentford’s best spell of the game almost delivered a gamechanger at the other end.
The never tiring Vibe tormented an otherwise exemplary Tim Ream before his deflected shot was pushed away by Bettinelli and the Fulham academy graduate also got down well to parry substitute Florian Jozefzoon’s effort after he had wriggled his way into the box. Bettinelli then used his feet to turn away another Vibe effort – and, as Leeds mounted what seemed like a momentous comeback from 3-0 down against Norwich, the Craven Cottage faithful became increasingly anxious.
Neither side could find a winner – and Cairney’s relief on hearing the Hammersmith End’s huge roar that greeted the final whistle at Elland Road was palpable. Jokanovic can now rotate his squad for what becomes something of a dead rubber rather than a high noon shootout with Sheffield Wednesday on Sunday – but the streetwise Serbian will still have a few more tricks up his sleeve.
FULHAM (4-1-2-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks, Malone, Kalas, Ream; McDonald; Cairney, Johansen; Aluko, Sessegnon (Piazon 59), Ayite (Kebano 79). Subs (not used): Button, Odoi, Madl, Parker, Cyriac.
GOAL: Cairney (8).
BRENTFORD (4-2-3-1): Bentley; Clarke, Field, Barbet, Dean; Yennaris, Kerschbaumer (Westbrooke 76); Jota, Canos (Jozefzoon 61); Vibe. Subs (not used): Bonham, Egan, Bjelland, Shaibu, Hofmann.
GOAL: Yennaris (33).
REFEREE: Darren Bond (Lancashire).