This wasn’t a vintage Fulham performance, but after the mess Slavisa Jokanovic’s side created for themselves by trying to pass their way around stubborn opposition at Griffin Park last weekend, the Serbian won’t be too perturbed that his charges swapped style for steel. The home side would have wanted to build on Sheyi Ojo’s expertly-taken early goal – and the nervousness before Jeremie Boga’s atrocious penalty miss certainly wasn’t in the script – but a second gutsy home win by a single goal lifted the Whites back into the top half of the Championship table.
Whilst Jokanovic could content himself with the first pair of consecutive league clean sheets in the same season since October 2014, there was no such silver lining after another away defeat for Steve Cotterill. Birmingham remain in the relegation zone on goal difference after another dispiriting defeat and the goal-shy Blues even spurned an early Christmas present when, after Kevin McDonald brought down Emilio Nsue, Boga blasted the spot-kick into the Putney End. The loanee from the other end of the King’s Road must have studied the Fulham penalty-taking manual by mistake.
On a freezing afternoon beside the River Thames, moments of real quality were few and far between. Jokanovic fielded a side without a genuine centre forward for the second successive week – and initially his players seemed determined to show that they could profit from such a system. Both Neeskens Kebano and Ojo looked lively roaming from the flanks and Tom Cairney briefly had an early sight of goal, before the home side took the lead with a move of real class.
Some sumptuous first-time passing between Ryan Sessegnon and Cairney created the space for Kebano to fire a low ball towards the near post, where Ojo arrived to prod an instinctive finish beyond former Fulham goalkeeper David Stockdale. It seemed so simple – but the hosts spent the rest of the afternoon trying to repeat the trick without success. Kevin McDonald twice threaded lovely balls through a crowded penalty area but Sessegnon wasn’t able to add a telling touch in front of goal.
Stockdale then produced a superb save in first half stoppage time – pawing away a powerful Kebano drive from point blank range after the visitors had failed to clear a Fulham corner. It proved to be the Congolese winger’s last contribution as he limped off with a groin strain, replaced by Aboubakar Kamara, who at least gave Jokanovic’s attack a more natural focal point.
Birmingham had only threatened sporadically with their best moments coming when Lukas Jutkiewicz and Boga were able to combine, leaving Marcus Bettinelli – who had replaced the dropped David Button in goal – largely a spectator on his first-team return. Within minutes of the restart, only the goalkeeper’s quick reactions prevented a calamity after a woefully short back-header from Tomas Kalas almost let in Jutkiewicz.
Cotterill’s side certainly had more ambition in the second period, but they had to absorb a prolonged spell of Fulham pressure around the hour mark. Kamara flashed a drive across the face of goal after fine approach play from Cairney and Johansen and the French striker did superbly to play in Johansen seconds later, only for the Norwegian’s precise shot to be pushed aside by Stockdale.
When Ojo spooned Sessegnon’s inviting cut back high into the Hammersmith End, you got the feeling Fulham weren’t going to add to their advantage. The afternoon only got more torturous for the home fans when McDonald missed an attempted clearance and instead scythed down Nsue inside the box. Referee Tony Harrington pointed to the spot and it seemed Blues’ wait for an away goal would be a thing of the past, only for Boga to balloon his penalty high over the bar after the shortest of run-ups.
That setback from the spot didn’t diminish either the volume or the optimism from Blues’ excellent travelling support. They roared their side forward and, with Southampton striker Sam Gallagher adding aerial threat, started to prey on some frayed Fulham nerves. The excellent Tim Ream dealt with a number deep crosses, but a succession of corners ramped up the pressure and Michael Morrison ruffled the side netting with a header at the far post.
In a fraught end to the game, Fulham looked very dangerous on the break as Blues committed numbers forward – with Kamara pulling a shot wide and Rui Fonte powering a downward header wide. Birmingham placed the home defence under real strain during the five minutes of stoppage time, but Fulham remained resolute to record back-to-back home wins.
FULHAM (4-1-2-1-2): Bettinelli; Fredericks, R. Sessegnon, Kalas, Ream; McDonald; Norwood, Cairney; Johansen (Fonte 79); Ojo (Djalo 90), Kebano (Kamara 45). Subs (not used): Button, Graham, Mollo, de la Torre.
GOAL: Ojo (14).
BIRMINGHAM CITY (3-5-2): Stockdale; Dacres-Cogley, Morrison, Grounds; Nsue, Davis, Kieftenbeld, Gleeson, Bramall (Maghoma 89); Jutkiewicz (Gallagher 63), Boga. Subs (not used): Trueman, Lowe, Ndoye, Cotterill, Jota.
REFEREE: Tony Harrington (Cleveland).