The dust might have long since settled on Fulham’s fine victory at Cardiff City on Boxing Day, but even with hours of reflecting on the Whites’ performance behind this correspondent, it is difficult to put into words the quality of this display. Dismantling Cardiff, who had not tasted defeat at home this term before kick off and had only conceded five goals in eleven games, with such ease showed that Fulham’s fine recent run was no fluke and that this side is capable of matching the football that Slavisa Jokanovic’s team managed in the second half of last season.
It was instructive to read Marcus Bettinelli this morning suggesting that Fulham had been nowhere close to the level that saw them surge into the play-offs last spring. The performance in south Wales on Tuesday was arguably the closest to the kind of classy displays that pulled apart all-comers in the Championship last year and certainly matched the swashbuckling football that the Whites took to Newcastle United and Huddersfield, who were both promoted automatically lest we forget, during those sensational few months.
The fluidity of Fulham’s movement was especially pleasing as that has been the thing that has been missing during some of this season’s flatter displays. That it was achieved with Floyd Ayite operating at the top of a flexible 4-3-3, with Sheyi Ojo and Ryan Sessegnon interchanging with the returning Togolese winger, was particularly striking. With Lucas Piazon getting on the pitch five minutes after what could have been another shattering injury at Leeds after Rui Fonte had come off the bench to make the third goal with a wonderful piece of vision, the offensive options at Jokanovic’s disposal are already enhanced.
The gulf in class between Fulham and a side that had – until recently – been setting the pace at the top of the division was most apparent in midfield. Craig Bryson, Joe Ralls and Loic Damour covered plenty of ground but were largely anonymous when compared to their opposite numbers as Fulham’s central midfield triumvirate motored through the game effortlessly. Kevin McDonald filled the gaps between the back four and Cairney and Johansen impeccably, occasionally striding into Cardiff territory with real purpose, but it was the way the more advanced midfielders imposed themselves on proceedings that would have made Jokanovic purr. Cairney, who has endured a frustrating campaign since picking up a troublesome knee injury in pre-season, shrugged off a succession of challenges designed to test his mettle and delivered a quietly commanding performance whilst Johansen – who has been managing his own groin problem since August – delivered an energetic display infused with quality that was capped by his majestic chip to seal the points at the tail end of stoppage time.
If the visitors should have put the game out of sight well before half time, there could be no complaints about Fulham’s ruthlessness in front of goal after the break. The goals were shared around and expertly taken – with the combination play between Ayite and Sessegnon for the second goal absolutely sumptuous. The Whites looked like they could get behind a petrified Cardiff defensive line in every attack and you’d give more than a penny for Joe Bennett’s thoughts after he turned down Fulham during the summer only to ran absolutely ragged by Ojo, Ayite and Sessegnon. The way the teenager takes his goals has ceased to surprise us now – but it is worth noting his composure after taking down Fonte’s pass and jinking past a defender to go clean through on Neil Etheridge.
Fulham’s defending was also markedly improved on their last visit to Cardiff, when Kenneth Zohore completely dominated Tim Ream and Tomas Kalas. Both were excellent in reading the game and coping with the physicality when the Bluebirds went long – and the home side’s only prolonged spell of pressure came after Zohore had lashed home a world-class finish from 25 yards moments after Ayite’s goal. That superb strike was unstoppable and not too much blame could be attached to the Fulham back four either. Having Denis Odoi at left back solidified the defence – and Nathaniel Mendez-Laing was so far removed from the man who had electrified the Cardiff City Stadium earlier this season, you wondered whether an imposter had taken his place. Mendez-Laing’s miserable afternoon was summed up by the way his elaborate back-heel actually led to Fulham’s third goal.
Fulham fans are accustomed to false dawns and often have to temper hope with a cold, hard dose of reality, but this was a performance that suggested that this squad has another a promotion push in them. The players themselves have insisted that the win means little without it being accompanied with more consistent results, but the belief that Fulham will gain from comprehensively outclassing one of the automatic promotion contenders will be invaluable in the weeks ahead.