In case their recent run of form had gone unnoticed, Fulham sent the rest of the Championship a warning as to the seriousness of their promotion credentials with possibly their most impressive performance of their campaign as they ended Aston Villa’s seven-match winning streak at Craven Cottage this afternoon. Slavisa Jokanovic’s side gradually wore down their visitors and were good value for their victory, which came courtesy of second half strikes from teenage winger Ryan Sessegnon and the returning Floyd Ayite.
Villa, set up to stifle Fulham’s flowing football, had nullified the home side’s attacking instincts after a promising early flurry but were swept aside after being breached by a beautiful move seven minutes after the interval. Ayite, preferred to Lucas Piazon on the right wing this afternoon, swept away from two would-be tacklers and fed the rampaging Ryan Fredericks, whose measured low cross found the advancing Sessegnon and the teenager’s clever finish found the far corner.
That goal marked the first time Steve Bruce’s side had been behind in the league since Boxing Day and, without the creativity usually provided by the injured Jack Grealish and Albert Adomoah, Villa never looked like getting back into the contest. The home side seemed suddenly to carry a greater goal threat ever time they went forward, but the crucial second arrived courtesy of a horrendous mistake from the usually reliable Sam Johnstone. The on-loan Manchester United goalkeeper attempted to clear his lines from a defensive free-kick in the Villa right back position but his kick only found Ayite in the centre circle and the Togolese winger chipped in from 50 yards with a modicum of fuss.
Bruce sent on Lewis Grabban and Keinan Davis in an attempt to inspire a fightback but their only opening came courtesy of Birkir Bjarnason’s chipped ball that split Tim Ream and Tomas Kalas only for Scott Hogan – usually so deadly against Fulham – to spoon a volley high into the Putney End. At the other end, Fulham were rampant. Johnstone made a splendid sprawling save to deny the excellent Aleksandr Mitrovic and, from the next passage of play, Ayite headed over Sessegnon’s floated cross. With the Fulham fans aiming ridicule at their favourite bête noire, John Terry, substitute Aboubakar Kamara stung Johnstone’s palms with a fierce shot – and Bruce’s side were relieved to hear the final whistle.
The Whites could have won by more, but they had made their statement in any case. Jokanovic was too wily to be drawn into where this all left the promotion picture after the final whistle, preferring to laud’s his side’s belief in their footballing style, which had survived one of its toughest tests of the season. The home side certainly settled the quicker with Matt Targett fizzing a speculative strike a few yards wide and then Mitrovic, who conclusively won one of the key battles against an ageing Terry, coming much closer with a header.
Villa could have taken the lead with their first real foray into Fulham territory with Bjarnason played a clever one-two with Mile Jedinak and advanced to the edge of the box before shooting fractionally wide of the far post. In a first half of few openings, Robert Snodgrass had fired just off target from outside the penalty area – but Fulham enjoyed the lion’s share of possession, probing patiently in front of the visiting back four. They struggled for penetration as Tom Cairney worked his way into the contest after returning to the starting line-up with Sessegnon well shackled by Axel Tuanzebe, who used his pace and positional sense expertly to keep the young prospect quiet during the first period. Right on the stroke of half-time, Ayite glided a volley into Johnstone’s gloves – but Jokanovic would have been disappointed at Fulham’s failure to get behind the Villa defence despite dominating possession.
It was a different story in the second half. Fulham found ways to allow Sessegnon, Ayite and Fredericks – their three most likely sources of an opening – to engineer space in the final third, whilst Cairney gradually became more influential as the contest went on. Sessegnon showed great character to snaffle the vital opener only moments after failing to convert a glorious opportunity created for him by a brilliant bowl out from Marcus Bettinelli. The Fulham goalkeeper’s throw sent the teenager haring down the left wing but he misjudged his pass to Stefan Johansen, who had surged forward in support.
It didn’t unduly affect the teenager, who showed that predatory instinct to creep in from the wing as Fredericks breezed away from Alan Hutton, and then found the perfect finish to nestle in the far corner from the full back’s low cross. The relief around a packed Craven Cottage gave way to ecstasy – as if Fulham’s largest crowd of the season began to believe that automatic promotion might not be beyond Jokanovic’s team. The Serbian’s side still have a testing month ahead – but playing like this, they’ll be a formidable match for any of the division’s promotion contenders.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks, Targett, Kalas, Ream; McDonald, Johansen (Odoi 90+1), Cairney; Ayite (Piazon 88), R. Sessegnon, Mitrovic (Kamara 79). Subs (not used): Button, Christie, Norwood, Kebano.
GOALS: R. Sessegnon (52), Ayite (71).
ASTON VILLA (4-1-4-1): Johnstone; Tuanzebe, Hutton, Chester, Terry; Jedinak (Grabban 67); Bjarnason, Hourihane, Elmohamady (Onomah 45), Snodgrass (Davis 88); Hogan. Subs (not used): Bunn, Taylor, Whelan, Lansbury.
REFEREE: Tony Harrington (Cleveland)