Early strikes from Aleksandr Mitrovic and Ryan Sessegnon were enough to secure Fulham’s first win at Derby in sixteen years and help Slavisa Jokanovic’s side move above the Rams into fourth place in the Championship. But the Whites did have to dig deep to hold on for three precious points at Pride Park after Tom Huddlestone halved Derby’s arrears midway through the second half – and Gary Rowett’s side certainly made things nervy during a tense finale.
It looked as if the Londoners would stroll to another success after going two up in the first 22 minutes on a freezing East Midlands afternoon. Fulham had already fired an early warning shot with Aleksandr Mitrovic, who outmuscled the Derby defence all afternoon, forcing a desperate challenge from Curtis Davies and allowing Ryan Sessegnon to test Scott Carson’s reflexes. Jokanovic’s side breathed a sigh of relief when Andi Weimann’s cool finish from Andree Wisdom’s was ruled out by an offside flag, but Fulham looked lively going forward and took the lead in the tenth minute.
Matt Targett’s corner found Stefan Johansen unattended 35 yards from goal and the Norwegian’s first time ball caused consternation in the Derby box. Craig Forsyth inexplicably attempted to chest the ball down in front of Mitrovic eight yards out and the Serbian gleefully steered his third goal in as many games past Carson, although the former England goalkeeper stood no chance as the ball deflected off the desperate defender. Mitrovic’s best scoring run in English football encapsulates the potency he has added to Fulham’s front line.
Derby mustered a spirited response to going behind with Cameron Jerome, rumoured to have been on Jokanovic’s summer wishlist, and George Thorne having shots blocked before Weimman turned provider for Wisdom, but the former Liverpool defender drove wastefully wide from a promising position. Rowett’s men were swiftly made to pay for their profligacy. Targett found acres of room down the left and, after a brilliant backheel from Johansen, Sessegnon smashed a low shot into the far corner to double Fulham’s lead.
The first half remained an open affair, but aside from the lively Tom Lawrence firing a half-volley at Marcus Bettinelli from the edge of the area, it was Fulham who looked like adding to their lead. Carson denied Floyd Ayite at his near post and, in stoppage time at the end of the first half, Mitrovic spun away from his marker to shoot wide. The pattern appeared set to continue after the break when Mitrovic drove wide after Targett’s deflected cross reached him, but the home side were woken from their slumber once on-loan Chelsea youngster Kasey Palmer replaced Thorne.
Jerome might have handed Derby a lifeline when he burst into the Fulham box but for a heavy touch and both Lawrence and Huddlestone went close with long-range efforts. Rowett’s men were putting the visitors under far more concerted pressure than they had managed in a strangely subdued first half and they got a reward for their endeavour when, following a generous free-kick award, the former Hull midfielder drove home his second of the season – with the aid of a deflection – from just outside the box.
Suddenly, the Rams had their tails up and Fulham, who had appeared irresistible in the game’s first quarter, looked fallible for the first time. Jerome picked Bettinelli’s pocket after a bad error from the Fulham goalkeeper but just as Lawrence looked poised to stroke in a leveller from the edge of the box, Tim Ream arrived to block the Welshman’s shot. Derby penned Fulham back but during five minutes of added time, two bits of last-ditch defending ensured the Whites’ grip on a vital win wasn’t loosened.
Firstly, Kevin McDonald produced the perfectly-timed intervention to prevent Matej Vydra from converting Jerome’s cross from close range and then, as Fulham scrambled to clear their lines again, Richard Keogh saw his improvised shot at the far post brilliantly palmed over by Bettinelli. The late defending contrasted starkly with the exhilarating football with which Fulham had began the afternoon but Jokanovic won’t complain about his side’s strength of character that has characterised their remarkable post-Christmas climb up the table.
DERBY COUNTY (4-2-3-1): Carson; Wisdom (Anya 77), Keogh, Davies, Forsyth; Thorne (Palmer 56), Huddlestone (Johnson 84); Weimann, Vydra, Lawrence; Jerome. Subs (not used): Roos, Pearce, Ledley, Nugent.
BOOKED: Lawrence, Palmer, Weimann.
GOAL: Huddlestone (68).
FULHAM (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks, Targett, Odoi, Ream; McDonald, Johansen (Norwood 63), Cairney; Ayite (Piazon 71), R. Sessegnon (Ojo 87), Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Norman, Christie, Fonte, Kamara.
BOOKED: Johansen, Mitrovic.
GOALS: Mitrovic (10), Sessegnon (22).
REFEREE: Lee Mason (Portsmouth).