It must seem like groundhog day for Slavisa Jokanovic at the moment. In their last two matches at Craven Cottage, Fulham have taken a late lead only to surrender their slender advantage at the last. For table-topping Cardiff a fortnight ago, read Middlesbrough – now unbeaten in five games – yesterday. The fact that Fulham’s football was the most fluent their home fans had enjoyed this season was rendered moot by the sloppy defending that allowed Cyrus Christie to slam home his first Boro goal.
The failure to see out matches has been something that exercised Jokanovic already this term. The hosts were unable to claim an opening day win over Norwich due to a defensive aberration and Fulham’s defenders had at least two opportunities to clear a deep corner before the former Derby right back fired a powerful equaliser past David Button. The resignation on the Fulham bench contrasted sharply with Garry Monk’s jubilation and the former Leeds manager hailed this as ‘an excellent point’.
This draw will feel like a defeat for Fulham, especially after Saturday’s reverse at Burton. Jokanovic’s side were bolder both with and without the ball than they had been both at the Pirelli Stadium and, arguably, in any other fixture at Craven Cottage since the start of the campaign. Rui Fonte returned to the starting line-up in place of Neeskens Kebano after a brief cameo from the bench at Burton – and the Portuguese striker’s clever runs dragged Middlesbrough’s centre halves all across the field from the outset.
Monk, whose success with Leeds last year was based on a defensive resilience, set up his side to try and keep Fulham’s fluent football at bay. He paired the experienced Ben Gibson with the latest revelation at centre half, Dael Fry, and the England under-21 international delivered a superbly composed display that looked as if he had been starring for his hometown club for all of his twenty years. Boro’s front three interchanged regularly and it was the lively Lewis Baker, who fashioned the first effort at goal, with David Button stretching to tip over a rising drive from the Chelsea loanee in the seventh minute.
Fulham’s response came courtesy of the flying Ryan Sessegnon, who was cynically chopped down by Christie in full flight, and the excellent Darren Rudolph displayed fine agility to turn aside Ollie Norwood’s swirling free-kick. The Republic of Ireland international then blocked a low drive from Floyd Ayite with his feet at the near post after Stefan Johansen had found the Togolese winger with a fine thread pass. The home side continued to probe but Boro almost went ahead when winger Marvin Johnson tricked his way past Ryan Fredericks and Kevin McDonald before dragging a low shot just wide of the far post.
Norwood nearly found the net from long range with a rising effort that narrowly cleared Rudolph’s crossbar before Ayite was forced off with a suspected hamstring pull, replaced by Kebano, The home side nearly finished the first period in the perfect manner, when Fonte did fantastically to collect a low Fredericks, spin away from two defenders and locate Norwood from the penalty spot but the Northern Ireland international missed the target with a snapshot.
Jokanovic’s side continued where they had left off after the break. Sheyi Ojo seized on a slip by Fabio to get in behind the Boro backline but the onrushing Sessegnon could not provide the telling connection at the back post. Fonte almost punished Gibson for a short back pass when he charged down Randolph’s clearance but the ball wouldn’t break for another white shirt. Kebano was a beguiling presence down the right and after some outrageous trickery, he won a free-kick in a central area that Norwood curled agonisingly wide.
The hosts looked in complete control but were nearly the architects of their own downfall midway through the second period when an ambitious Tomas Kalas pass was picked off by Brett Assombalonga. The former Nottingham Forest forward failed to make the most of a lightning break, failing to shift the ball wide of Kalas to two waiting red shirts, and a ricochet saw his shot rebound invitingly for Bamford, who found the side netting with a rasping drive from 20 yards. In their best spell of the game, Monk’s side also saw Johnson spurn a presentable opening with a weak shot – before Jokanovic threw on Aboubakar Kamara to ask more questions at the other end.
The £5m arrival from Amiens linked up impressively with Fonte and their improved understanding saw the barrel-chested Frenchman sprint clear of the last man to reach a threaded pass from the former Braga forward, but he sliced his shot horribly high in the Hammersmith End as he snatched impetuously at the opportunity to beat Randolph from eight yards. It was a bad miss but the 22 year-old didn’t allow his head to drop and, just as it looked as if this might be the first goalless draw here in 130 Fulham league matches, got his reward when he leapt imperiously to meet a deep cross from Sessegnon and sent a powerful header in via the crossbar.
Kamara and the Cottage rose as one to acclaim his first goal and, as the Fulham faithful celebrated what appeared a season-igniting strike with four minutes to play, you wondered whether Jokanovic’s side could be more ruthless than against Cardiff and see out the game. It took just two minutes for the underwhelming answer to arrive. Fulham failed to clear their lines twice from a deep corner and there was Christie, who took a touch, and fired home like a veteran finisher rather than a full-back, to restore parity. Hauling themselves off the turf to extend their unbeaten run to five games showed the never-say-die attitude that Monk has imbued on the Teessiders.
Barker, who had moaned his way what finished as a pulsating encounter, passed up a gloriously chance to complete the archetypal smash and grab raid in added time when he twisted and turned beyond Fulham defenders before his shot was bravely blocked at source by the sliding Sessegnon. The seventeen year-old had turned the game Fulham’s way and then prevented his side losing it in an incredible closing nine minutes, but the look at his young face after the final whistle was one of utter devastation that the Whites had drawn their fifth Championship fixture in nine.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Button; Fredericks, R. Sessegnon, Kalas, Ream; McDonald, Johansen (Kamara 70), Norwood (Cisse 90); Ojo, Ayite (Kebano 42); Fonte. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Odoi, Djalo, Mollo.
BOOKED: McDonald, Fonte.
GOAL: Kamara (86).
MIDDLESBROUGH (4-4-2): Randolph; Christie, Fabio (Friend 76), Gibson, Fry; Clayton, Howson, Baker, Johnson; Bamford (Fletcher 76), Assombalonga (Downing 90). Subs (not used): Konstantopoulos, Shotton, Tavernier, Leadbitter.
REFEREE: Oliver Langford (West Midlands).