A brace from the busy Aleksandr Mitrovic coupled with a classy second half finish from captain Tom Cairney secured another impressive win for Fulham over their promotion rivals as Sheffield United were put to the sword at Craven Cottage this evening. Slavisa Jokanovic’s side put together a scintilating display of enterprising football that left the Blades chasing shadows and maintained the Whites’ flawless form since the turn of the year.
Mitrovic’s double – which took him to five goals in seven appearances for Fulham since his deadline day loan move from Newcastle – was made up of a pair of supremely composed finishes. The Serbian slid in to steer home Ryan Fredericks’ low cross off the underside of the crossbar, settling the home side’s nerves after Sheffield United had made the livelier start of these two promotion contenders. His second showed just how much confidence the 23 year-old has garnered from his scoring run as he impudently flicked Stefan Johansen’s chip past Jamal Blackman at his near post from eleven yards without breaking stride.
Mitrovic made have sealed a first half hat-trick in stoppage time but he was at full stretch when connecting with Ryan Sessegnon’s low cut back and sent his finish high over the bar. He passed a couple of good chances to register a first senior hat-trick after the break, but Fulham found a third following a swift break after Tim Ream had stepped out of defence to steal possession from John Fleck. Sessegnon looked like he might have squandered the chance when he overhit a ball for Johansen but the 17 year-old made amends by locating Lucas Piazon’s forward run and the substitute’s smart lay-off allowed Cairney to find the bottom corner with an unerring finish.
The peerless nature of Fulham’s performance was illustrated by the fact that Chris Wilder’s men were left chasing shadows for prolonged periods in the second half. The home side’s complete control by the hour mark represented a real sea change from the opening exchanges, when it was the Blades who burst out of the blocks and created the clearest chances. Marcus Bettinelli was called into action as early as the fourth minute when he had to field a fierce drive from Mark Duffy at his near post and the Fulham goalkeeper would have been relieved when Billy Sharp sent a free header into the Hammersmith End after Duffy’s deep cross had eluded Denis Odoi.
Fulham gradually began to work some pretty patterns in front of the Blades’ three centre halves, with Blackman denying Johansen from distance twice in the space of two minutes. The home side were beginning to work up a head of steam and went in front just past the half hour when, after a period of patient probing, Cairney released Fredericks with a precise pass. The full back galloped towards the by-line and Mitrovic, who made it a miserable return to SW6 for Richard Stearman by conclusively winning their personal battle hands down, showed great desire to ram home the cross.
The game remained ridiculously open – just like November’s nine-goal thriller at Bramall Lane – and Wilder’s men were perhaps unfortunate not to be level before Mitrovic’s second left them with a mountain to climb. Bettinelli produced a fine fingertip save to turn aside a low Fleck drive that looked to be creeping inside his far post and former Brentford striker Clayton Donaldson remarkably failed to finish from two yards out with just the goalkeeper to beat after Fulham left him unattended at a corner. The Blades’ bluntness in attack was punished just before the break by an outrageous piece of finishing from Mitrovic, who nonchalantly guided Johansen’s hopeful chip between Blackman and his near post, and sprinted away in pure delight.
Wilder sent on David Brooks in place of Chris Basham to give the Blades an extra man in central midfield and the Welsh international nearly made an immediate impact, jinking his way into the penalty area to create half a chance for Donaldson, but Bettinelli easily smothered the eventual shot. That only seemed to galvanise Jokanovic’s men, who put together a fine passing move from front to back that was nearly finished by Johansen only for the Norwegian’s powerful shot – after more than a suspicion of handball – was turned aside by Blackman. Piazon then replaced Sheyi Ojo and took just three minutes to lay on Cairney’s composed finish with an unselfish pass that created the Fulham captain’s first goal since October.
At that point, it looked as Fulham could score a hatful. Mitrovic snatched at a couple of good openings to crown another storming individual display with a hat-trick, but he made to make to with a standing ovation from the Fulham faithful when he was replaced by Rui Fonte with four minutes to play. The Blades kept battling but they lacked their opponents’ ruthlessness in front of goal. Former Sheffield United midfielder Kevin McDonald blocked a Duffy shot, Brooks blazed over from the edge of the box and substitute Ched Evans directed a free header wastefully wide.
Fulham’s only source of frustration was that both Aston Villa and Cardiff also triumphed to leave the Championship table much as it stood before kick off this evening. In this sort of form, however, none of the league leading lights with relish a clash with Jokanovic’s men, who will seek to take their momentum into Saturday’s trip to Preston North End.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks, Targett, Odoi, Ream; McDonald, Johansen (Norwood 65), Cairney; Ojo (Piazon 58), R. Sessegnon, Mitrovic (Fonte 85). Subs (not used): Norman, Christie, Ayite, Kamara.
GOALS: Mitrovic (31, 44), Cairney (61).
SHEFFIELD UNITED (5-3-2): Blackman; Baldock, Stevens, Basham (Brooks 45), Stearman, O’Connell; L. Evans, M. Duffy, Fleck; Sharp (Holmes 65), Donaldson (C. Evans 64). Subs (not used): Moore, Lundstram, Lafferty, Leonard.
BOOKED: Stevens, L. Evans, O’Connell, Fleck.
REFEREE: Keith Stroud (Gloucestershire).