Second half goals from Lucas Piazon and Stefan Johansen secured a fifth successive league win for Fulham – as what turned into a routine victory over Nottingham Forest lifted Slavisa Jokanovic’s side into fifth place in the Championship. The home side were frustrated for more than a hour on a miserable afternoon at Craven Cottage before Costil Pantilmon marked his Forest debut by allowing a seemingly straightforward shot from Lucas Piazon to slip through his grasp – and the Romanian was beaten again by the rampaging Johansen in the last minute of normal time as his team-mates pushed forward in search of a late leveller.
For much of the contest, there was little between the sides – with Fulham’s football the sharper and more fluent, but Jokanovic’s men were indebted to a remarkable double save from Marcus Bettinelli for preserving their lead four minutes from time. The Fulham academy graduate, who had earlier spread himself bravely at his near post to prevent Matty Cash from punishing a defensive error, saved splendidly from Ben Osborn and then flung himself across goal to also block the follow-up from substitute Apostolos Vellios.
The magnitude of the moment was recognised by both the home crowd and Bettinelli’s team-mates, who rushed in to celebrate their reprieve. Forest – who had been battering at the door with commendable persistence throughout – couldn’t summon another chance of note and, instead, had their pocket picked as the clock ticked towards injury time. Johansen stole possession from Joe Worrall on the halfway line and, despite seeming out on his feet, sprinted into the penalty area and slotted past Pantilmon to make certain of a vital victory.
That joyous ending had little in common with Fulham’s frustrating first 45 minutes. The Whites began at a high tempo with most of their threat coming down the left flank, where Ryan Sessegnon linked up delightfully with Matt Targett, who was handed a first Fulham start after impressing off the bench at Barnsley last weekend. Sessegnon served notice of his intentions with a couple of surging runs before being clattered into by Cash long after the ball had gone – one of a number of heavy challenges that went unpunished by referee Tim Robinson.
Fulham enjoyed plenty of possession but much less penetration. A well-worked corner which saw Johansen’s low delivery swept goalwards from ten yards out by Piazon represented the home side’s first real chance, but the ball was diverted behind by Michael Mancienne. Pantilmon produced a magnificent save a minute later to preserve parity – with the former Manchester City goalkeeper diving to his right to repel Ollie Norwood’s curler from 25 yards.
The visitors then almost took the lead after Tim Ream got himself into a tangle, striking a clearance against Cash, who raced through on goal and was denied by the onrushing Bettinelli. Forest were workmanlike and, having been freshened up by three of the deadline day arrivals, Aitor Karanka’s side were full of energy and endeavour, even if most of it was applied to preventing Fulham from getting a flying start.
It was a different story after the interval when Forest were quick out of the blocks and won a succession of early corners. It was one from one of those set-plays that Worrall outjumped Tomas Kalas and planted a powerful header past Bettinelli that came back off the far post. The visitors continued to pose a real threat from dead ball situations throughout and it took Fulham a while to recover the poise of their first half performance. They were certainly enlivened by the introduction of Aleksandar Mitrovic ten minutes into the second half.
Sessegnon felt he should have put the Whites in front instead of heading over the bar when he leapt above Danny Fox to meet Ryan Fredericks’ looping cross from the right after fine approach play from Piazon. But the frustration didn’t last too long after Piazon darted past a couple of Forest defenders on his way into the penalty area before powering in a shot that burst through Pantilmon’s hands at his near post.
Fulham searched for a second with Mitrovic – desperate to make an impact on his debut – going close on a couple of occasions before Karanka threw on Lee Tomlin and Ashkan Dejagah, who made his first Forest appearance nearly four years after leaving Craven Cottage, to try and inspire a Forest equaliser. The double change nearly did the trick but for Bettinelli’s barely believable heroics before Johansen put the game beyond the plucky visitors right at the death.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks, Targett (Odoi 90+2), Kalas, Ream; McDonald, Norwood, Johansen; Piazon (Ayite 88), R. Sessegnon, Fonte (Mitrovic 55). Subs (not used): Button, Christie, Kebano, Kamara.
GOALS: Piazon (67), Johansen (90).
NOTTINGHAM FOREST (4-2-3-1): Pantilmon; Lichaj, Fox, Worrall, Mancienne; Colback, Guedioura (Dejagah 76); Cash, Dowell (Tomlin 70), Osborn; Brereton (Velios 81). Subs (not used): Smith, Figueiredo, Darikwa, Vaughan.
REFEREE: Tim Robinson (West Sussex).