Aleksandar Mitrovic continued his sensational start to life with Fulham by scoring his seventh goal in five games – with his injury-time winner earning the Whites another vital win in their push for promotion to the Premier League after an absorbing tussle at fellow play-off hopefuls Preston North End.
The Serbian striker, who has now six goals against Preston in the space of eighteen months, shrugged off an anonymous first half to power Fulham to victory in the second 45 minutes at Deepdale. He slotted home from close range to break the deadlock after substitute Cyrus Christie had made an immediate impact shortly after stepping off the bench and headed home from Tom Cairney’s stoppage-time cross after the in-form Sean Maguire had levelled matters. Mitrovic’s impact delighted the travelling fans and briefly lifted Slavisa Jokanovic’s side to third in the Championship table.
Alex Neill’s side could justifiably feel harshly done to after emerging from a pulsating encounter with nothing when they pushed their high-flying visitors back for long periods. Their high-tempo pressing game meant Fulham failed to find their usual passing rhythm and North End enjoyed the better of an intriguing first half. Maguire buzzed around brightly up front – a contest threat in behind against Tim Ream and the excellent Denis Odoi – but the home side’s fluid movement in the final third also meant that Callum Robinson regularly found himself in dangerous areas. The winger drew the first save of the match from Marcus Bettinelli inside four minutes after Maguire and Ben Pearson combined cleverly and the Fulham goalkeeper was called into action again when Robinson released full-back Darnell Fisher down the right.
By this stage, Jokanovic was becoming exercised on the touchline. His side had barely threatened as an attacking force before a raking ball from Floyd Ayite sent Stefan Johasen scampering clear in the inside left channel. The Norwegian did superbly to take Declan Rudd out of the picture with a clever crossfield pass for Mitrovic when everyone expected him to shot, but the on-loan Newcastle forward somehow contrived to miss the target from eight yards. That near miss seemed to spur Fulham into action with a fizzing Ryan Fredericks cross narrowly evading the sliding Ryan Sessegnon at the back stick before Rudd got his angles right to deny Mitrovic at his near post.
There was another warning of Preston’s potency in attack just before the break when Fulham, looking unusually fragile at the back, allowed a long punt forward from Rudd to reach Maguire, who wriggled away from Odoi, but desperate defending from Tim Ream and an alert Bettinelli managed to avert the danger. Fulham were late returning for the second period and, with Jokanovic’s dissatisfaction presumably still ringing in their ears, set about trying to put Preston on the back foot. The visitors nearly made the perfect start with Rudd superbly palming aside a 20-yarder from Floyd Ayite after the Togolese winger drove at the Preston back four.
Neill’s men weren’t about to be outdone. A lovely pass from Pearson put Barkhuizen in the clear, but his shot was blocked by a sprawling Matt Targett. Jokanovic then opted to sent on Christie for Fredericks and the former Middlesbrough defender repaid his manager’s faith within two minutes, bursting away from Callum Woods’ desperate lunge and cutting the ball back beautifully for Mitrovic, who buried a low finish through a forest of legs. If the visitors were expecting to be able to get their pretty passing football going after getting in front, they had another thing coming.
North End stepped it a gear and could have been level just six minutes later but for a brilliant reaction save from Bettinelli to deny a venomous volley by Ben Davies. Fulham failed to heed that warning, however, and when a criminally unattended Maguire met Pearson’s perfectly flighted cross the ball squirmed through Bettinelli’s heads to give the home side a deserved equaliser. Both sides had chances to win it during a frenetic finale, where Ream produced a brilliant saving challenge to prevent Robinson from running through on goal, but it was Fulham who found a winner right at the start of stoppage time.
Cairney made a decisive dart to come short for a Targett throw and made some space for himself down the left wing, whipping in a devilish cross that Mitrovic met with a looping header into the six-yard box that looped over a stranded Rudd and dropped into the net as time seemed to stand still. The Serbian striker had once again showed just what a presence he can be at the pivotal end of the field for a Fulham side who had previously been without such ruthlessness in the opposition box.
Preston’s players fell to their knees at full time, understandably disappointed that they had nothing to show for such a spirited performance. They pushed Fulham farther than Aston Villa, Wolves and Sheffield United in recent weeks – and if Neill’s side can produce more displays of this quality, they may yet force their way into the promotion picture.
PRESTON NORTH END (4-2-3-1): Rudd; Fisher, Cunningham (Woods 45), Huntingdon, Davies; Pearson, Johnson (Harrop 83); Robinson, Browne, Barkhuizen; Maguire (Bodin 83). Subs (not used): Maxwell, Clarke, Horgan, Gallagher.
GOAL: Maguire (76).
FULHAM (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks (Christie 67), Targett, Odoi, Ream; McDonald, Johansen, Cairney; Ayite (Piazon 59), Sessegnon (Ojo 83); Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Button, Norwood, Kamara, Fonte.
GOALS: Mitrovic (69, 90+1).
REFEREE: Simon Hooper (Wiltshire).