It was always likely that a cagey south London derby would struggle to match the drama of Fulham’s frenzied 5-4 win at Sheffield United in midweek, but even a perfectionist like Slavisa Jokanovic will have to toast the merits of a hard-fought 1-0 win over a competitive Millwall side. The slender success might have been fortuitous, as Neil Harris’ men twice struck the woodwork and could have easily earned a spot-kick to cancel out Ollie Norwood’s winner, but it also represented the Whites’ first home win since September and a first clean sheet in thirteen fixtures.
Grinding out wins hasn’t come easy to Jokanovic’s charges this season – and that is often the difference between the teams that return to the Premier League and those that falter. Fulham, without three players after Tim Ream and Kevin McDonadl joined Floyd Ayite on the sidelines having failed fitness tests, began in fluent fashion with Sheyi Ojo and Ryan Sessegnon, the heroes of that vibrant win in South Yorkshire, to the fore, but Tom Elliott actually wasted the best two openings in front of goal at the other end. The tall forward, lucky not to be dismissed for swinging an arm at Tomas Kalas later, rattled the far post with a free header and then sent another unattended header well wide after excellent approach play from the impressive George Saville.
Fulham’s brightest moments came courtesy of Ojo, who was full of confidence after an outstanding impact at Bramall Lane. The Liverpool loanee’s audacious chip from the edge of the area brought a fine save out of Jordan Archer and he then made a clever decoy run that freed up the space for Neeskens Kebano to sprint onto a beautifully weighted through ball from Tom Cairney, but Conor McLaughlin produced a splendid saving tackle to avert the danger. The Congolese winger also bore down on goal when a lofted ball from Stefan Johansen dropped between the Millwall back line and Archer, but the Scottish custodian was quickly off his line to smother the danger.
Just as it seemed as though Jokanovic would need to inspire his troops to break down Harris’ well-drilled side through a barnstorming half-time team-talk, referee Paul Tierney afforded a spot kick after Rui Fonte was hauled down by McLaughlin. Norwood scotched any discussion about how would take the responsibility from twelve yards by confidently stepping up and dispatching his four goal of the season with a modicum of fuss. Jokanovic introduced Aboubakar Kamara, who threatened the Millwall defence with his unique combination of express pace with heft, for Stefan Johansen but initially his side ceded the initative to their visitors.
Jake Cooper saw a close-range effort after Fulham failed to corner a free-kick parried to safety by Button and that seemed to give the visitors feel confidence. They enjoyed a prolonged spell of pressure late in the piece, with Saville bending a brilliant effort off the far post, and Button saving well from Elliott. Millwall captain Steve Morison, without a goal for the club this season, also went close – sending a chip fractionally wide.
Spaces were now opening up at either end of the pitch. A swift Fulham break saw Sessegnon, Cairney and Ojo all involved in a sweeping move that culminated in the teenager narrowly failing to supply the perfect cross for Ojo. As the home side pressed for a decisive second goal, the composed display of Shaun Hutchinson on his return to the Cottage came to the fore. The former Fulham centre half bravely blocked a shot from Kebano at source and organised his team-mates with both regularity and passion.
Tayo Edun offered another whole-hearted display as a second half substitute designed to quell the flow of a contest that was delivering too much Millwall pressure on David Button as Harris gambled by throwing on two more forwards. The last quarter of the game saw the Lions earn a succession of corners and long throws that were patiently repelled by the men in white but, much to Jokanovic’s frustration on the touchline, Fulham were unable to find the penetration to match their pretty approach. The lively Ojo came closest, but failed to find the target from four yards out – and, as time ticked down, Saville bent a free kick from the edge of the box wide of the Putney End goal. Kamara could have conceded a penalty for a clumsy challenge in the box at the start of a torturous period of added time – but the referee waved away the loud Millwall appeals.
On a freezing cold afternoon by the Thames, Fulham showed battling qualities that aligned with the obvious footballing ability of their coach and some of the men at his disposal hinted at the gap not been being as wide as it has felt recently. Both returning former Fulham players in Tunnicliffe and Hutchinson put in first-class performances, but it was their old employers who enjoyed a much-needed home win in the earn.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Button; Odoi, R. Sessegnon, Kalas, Odoi; Norwood, Johansen (Kamara 45), Cairney; Kebano (Djalo 78), Ojo, Fonte (Edun 58). Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Djalo, Cisse, de la Torre.
GOAL: Norwood (pen 45+1),
MILLWALL (4-4-2): Archer; Conor McLaughlin (Romeo 88), Hutchinson, Cooper, Meredith; Onyedinma (O’Brien 74′), Tunnicliffe, Saville, Ferguson (Gregory 74′); Elliott, Morison. Subs (not used): King, Craig, Thompson, Twardek.
BOOKED: McLaughlin, Savile.
REFEREE: Paul Tierney (Liverpool).