For 45 minutes at Carrow Road, it was something of a struggle for Fulham. Slavisa Jokanovic’s side looked sluggish after the international break and a coupe of the illustrious ballplayers in midfield seemed just a bit lethargic. Norwich were adventurous, energetic and competitive in putting Fulham off their usual stride – but when the Whites up their game after the interval, the Canaries just couldn’t live with the Londoners.
Those two goals in four second half minutes broke Norwich’s spirit and owed much to Fulham’s own sense of adventure. Fulham had such a slow start at the beginning of the season in large part due to a lack of willing runners from midfield, failing to join isolated forwards in the box. In East Anglia yesterday afternoon, the pivotal moments were provided by marauding midfielders. The doubts about Stefan Johansen that surfaced during that dismal run before Christmas should have long since been assuaged – but any lingering concerns were banished by the clinical way he swivelled to pounce on the rebound after Aleksandar Mitrovic’s thumping header had been pushed out by Angus Gunn.
Tom Cairney’s had a frustrating campaign to date, especially with that troublesome knee injury that has done such damage to both his and Fulham’s season. The Craven Cottage faithful had their hearts set a flutter during the January transfer window when a succession of rumours linked him with a number of Premier League clubs – but the captain has always been clear that his preference would be to make a return to the top flight with the Whites. Moments of magic have been far and few between in a difficult few months for the Scottish midfielder, but when Lucas Piazon’s deflected cross dropped at his feet sixteen yards out, there was little doubting the outcome.
When those two midfield dynamos are on song, there are few teams had this level who can live with the precision of Fulham’s passing and their patient probing around the box. Both Cairney and Johansen had words for Norwich’s talented young pretender James Maddison, who looks like a slightly more athletic version of Eastenders’ Jamie Mitchell from yesterday, and couldn’t get the hosts’ midfield to purr in the manner that Fulham’s was humming during the second half. Johansen incensed the Norwich players in the final quarter of an hour by winning a free kick and leading a series of mock celebrations in front of the travelling supporters – finally showing that cheeky chappie persona that everyone down at Motspur Park has enjoyed since he made the move from Celtic last season.
What was most pleasing about this hard-fought victory was that it wasn’t a performance full of flowing football. Fulham certainly didn’t have it all their own way and had to graft their way to a victory against stubborn and motivated opponents. Canaries’ midfielder Harrison Reed admitted that the Canaries tried to get physical with Fulham, but brute force alone wasn’t enough halt the Whites’ incredible unbeaten run. It will be like that for all of the seven games until the end of the season – and any play-off opponents will try and make themselves difficult to play for, worried about being passed off the field by Jokanovic’s possession football. It that sense this was the kind of win Fulham have to secure when they aren’t hitting their highest levels and, most importantly of all, it proved a fitting tribute to Matthew Fox on the twentieth anniversary of his passing.