The tension has been ratcheted up a couple of notches since Fulham were last at Craven Cottage, as the Championship play-off tussle enters the back straight, and the euphoria of a quite remarkable win at Norwich gave way to genuine belief that Slavisa Jokanovic’s side could finish in the top six after a season of outrageous flirting with the prospect of an extension to the campaign. Not that the pressure bothered sixteen year-old Ryan Sessegnon, who has already become the division’s youngest scorer and bagged a brace at St. James’ Park.
Nothing seems to faze the latest precocious talent off the Motspur Park production line. Offered another chance to strut his stuff on the left wing after Jokanovic rejigged his side in the absence of the suspended Chris Martin, the supremely talented teenager enhanced his burgeoning reputation with another splendidly taken goal that set Fulham on the way to a vital win over Aston Villa. Such is the confidence that his manager has in him that Sessegnon was switched to left back as the visitors threatened to force their way back into the contest during a spirited second half rally – with the youngster looking as if he had been dealing with the big games for decades instead of months.
Confidence is high in the Fulham ranks right now. Even without Martin, who will miss two more crucial fixtures in the run-in after his dismissal at Carrow Road, Jokanovic’s side possess an effervescent threat up front with the eager Floyd Ayite tormenting full-backs and drifting into dangerous positions. The Togolese winger might not have scored this afternoon but his tremendous wing play down the right laid on a crucial second for the lively Sone Aluko, deployed as an interchangeable false nine, at a time when the Whites appeared ready to wobble in the face of a fierce Villa onslaught and substitute Neeskens Kebano, who has enjoyed an excellent second half of the season, supplied the third goal with a precise finish after a storming run from Stefan Johansen.
Not that Fulham had it all their own way against Steve Bruce’s side, who showed plenty of application and fight for the cause, despite their season appearing in danger of petering out before the local derby against relegation-threatened Birmingham. Perhaps a little too much fight in the case of Jonathan Kodija, who was sent off for kicking out at Ryan Fredericks midway through the first period (a decision that enraged Bruce), but the desire to find a route back into the contest after Sessegnon’s opener, when he followed up an initial volley that had crashed off the crossbar with a predator finish, remained. Craig Gardner saw a speculative shot deflected wide and, from the resulting corner, Tommy Elphick powered a free header past the post.
The home side finished the first half stronger but they would ultimately pay for not extending their lead. Fredericks, who had also been clattered by Jordan Amavi in a tempestuous first period, drove wide of goal from outside the box before Tim Ream passed up a glorious chance in stoppage time – dragging a shot across the face of goal when it seemed easier to score after Tom Cairney had scuffed his own effort right to the American’s feet. Bruce enlivened his side at half-time and the mercurial Jack Grealish, whose work ethic was exemplary all afternoon, levelled matters within five minutes of the restart making the most of the oceans of space he was afforded by Fredericks to bend a peach of a shot beyond Marcus Bettinelli.
Fulham could ill afford to drop points to ten man as the play-off picture is getting unbearably tight. Jokanovic through on Kebano for Scott Malone in attempt to galvanise his charges – and, soon after, the hosts were back in front. The goal arrived down the right, with Ayite tricking his way brilliantly to the byline and keeping his composure to lift a cross in the direction of Aluko. The former Hull forward’s volley appeared to heading for Sam Johnstone at the near post – only for the ball to take a hefty deflection off the unfortunate Nathan Baker and entirely wrongfoot the goalkeeper.
The game became far more open as Bruce sent on Alan Hutton and Rushian Hepburn-Murphy as reinforcements but Fulham were largely frustrated in their search for a killer third. James Bree blocked bravely from Aluko, who also extended Johnstone, before Kebano sent a tantalising cross flying across the six-yard box. Johansen, whose drive from midfield has arguably been the missing ingredient that has turned Fulham side that were always easy on the eye into genuine promotion contenders, had been purring efficiently in the central areas all afternoon. He took matters in his own hands, embarking on a lung-bursting run from midfield and using the clever run of Ayite as a decoy, and delaying his defence splitting pass for Kebano until the optimum moment when the little Congolese winger scurried into the inside left position and tucked a fine finish inside the far post.
There is still an awful lot of football to be played this season, especially with the final day seeing Fulham having to travel to fellow play-off contenders Sheffield Wednesday. But Jokanovic’s side looked to have saved some pulsating form for the best possible moment – and their timing has also coincided with Leeds’ first major wobble for a while. Their home defeat at the hands of Wolves sent Fulham into the top six on goal difference, but it could all change around again at the weekend with the Whites facing a testing trip to Huddersfield.
FULHAM (4-1-2-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks, Malone (Kebano 55), Kalas, Ream; McDonald; Johansen, Cairney; Ayite, R. Sessegnon, Aluko (Piazon 85). Subs (not used): Button, Madl, Sigurdsson, Parker, Cyriac.
GOALS: Sessegnon (17), Aluko (56), Kebano (79).
ASTON VILLA (5-3-2): Johnstone; Bree (Hutton 70), Baker, Chester, Elphick; Jedinak, Gardiner, Amavi (Hepburn-Murphy 77), Grealish; Kodija, Hogan (Hourihane 81). Subs (not used): Bunn, Bacuna, Lansbury, Adomoah.
BOOKED: Amavi, Gardiner, Hogan.
SENT OFF: Kodija (23).
GOAL: Grealish (50).
REFEREE: David Coote (Nottinghamshire).