After the final whistle at a snow-covered Craven Cottage, it felt like the feint prospect of automatic promotion had slipped away from Fulham. Slavisa Jokanovic’s side might have stretched their unbeaten run to sixteen games – setting a new club record in the process – but, after a letting a two-goal lead slip at home to Queens Park Rangers after the most supine of second halves, the draw in the west London derby seemed like a defeat. The reaction of the home side at full time, slinking off the field as their rivals celebrated an unlikely point, told you all you needed to know – Cardiff City and second place seemed a long way away.
Ian Holloway and his QPR players deserve plenty of plaudits. Having surprised Aston Villa at Villa Park in midweek, they looked powerless against some of Fulham’s poise and movement in the first half. With Jokanovic’s side two goals to the good – thanks to Tom Cairney’s daisycutter from distance and a piece of predatory finishing from the recalled Lucas Piazon to match a flowing move – Rangers might easily have wilted in front of the television cameras once again. Instead, Holloway’s side rolled their sleeves up, grabbed a lifeline before the break in the shape of Massimo Luongo’s close-range volley, and then proceeded to pen Fulham back in their own half for much of the second period.
Holloway, a man who has had to deal with his fair share of pressure and criticism at Loftus Road this season, put his side decisively on a front foot with a double substitution that gave the visitors a timely shot in the arm. He replaced former Fulham forward Matt Smith, who had nearly driven an equaliser past Marcus Bettinelli, with Conor Washington and sent on youngster Paul Symth, who gave Matt Targett the toughest examination of his brief Fulham career down the Rangers right. The Northern Ireland forward felt he should have scored instead of directing a downward header at Bettinelli with ten minutes to play, but Fulham failed to heed that big warning.
Just a minute later, Denis Odoi attempted to dribble his way out of trouble, but took on the wrong man in the shape of Pawel Wszolek. The Pole ruthlessly robbed the Fulham defence and raced through on goal, with the coolness of his measured finish past Bettinelli belying the crucial nature of the moment. On the balance of the second period, Rangers might well have deserved to take all three points back to Shepherd’s Bush – an outcome which would have seemed preposterous just before half-time. Jokanovic’s men were indebted to Bettinelli, who produced a couple of superb second-half stops to deny Smith and Luke Freeman.
The visiting fans rushed to the front of the Putney End at the end to acclaim Rangers’ fourth point in the space of four days against sides aiming to reach the top flight. Parity seemed a long way away after Fulham had established two-goal cushion having eventually found the finishing to match some of their fine approach play. Jokanovic’s men had began the derby on the front foot and there was an almost the obligatory close range goal for Ryan Sessegnon when the teenager followed up after Alex Smithies had done brilliantly to palm away Tom Cairney’s measured drive from the edge of the box – but an offside flag rightly ruled it out.
The hosts enjoyed 72 per cent of possession in a first half they dominated but for a while they found it difficult to cut through a disciplined Rangers defence. Sessegnon’s header from a Targett corner that fell comfortably enough into Smithies’ arms was the closest they came for a while and both Ryan Manning and Wszolek had sights of goal on the break for the visitors. Cairney eventually found a way through just after the half hour when he made the most of a rare moment of time on the ball to advance on goal and locate the bottom corner with his left foot from thirty yards, placing it perfectly out of the goalkeeper’s reach.
Breaking the deadlock almost brought further rewards. A fine passage of passing saw Ryan Fredericks burst into the QPR box and flash a low cross fractionally wide of the far post – this time without the aid of a deflection that had helped put Fulham in front in the reverse fixture. Bettinelli produced a smart reaction save to keep out a bending effort from Wszolek and moments later it was 2-0. Fredericks was once again the architect, galloping onto an incisive Cairney pass and producing a cut back that caused consternation in the QPR defence. Sessegnon showed great presence of mind to feed Piazon, who beat Smithies from around twelve yards, rather than shoot himself – and Fulham appeared to be on easy street.
Rangers, though, had other ideas. They found a route back into proceedings before the first half had even ended, when Cairney brought down Manning. The Whites were all at sea from Freeman’s floated free kick with Smith directing a header into the danger area and Luonogo spun onto the loose ball before lashing a finish past Bettinelli. The Australian’s powerful drive gave QPR belief at a crucial moment – and, where Holloway’s changes emboldened his charges, Jokanovic’s sucked the life of Fulham. Cairney, who had been orchestrating things in midfield was sacrificed for Rui Fonte, which necessitated a change of system, and Sheyi Ojo replaced a tiring Sessegnon but the hosts still seemed enfeebled.
Their purpose and precise passing had been replaced by an anxiety that became all-consuming as Rangers pushed more bodies forward. Bettinelli’s saves only served to increase the jitters as the fluency with which they had found a path behind the QPR defence definitely a thing of the past. Aleksandar Mitrovic’s largely anonymous afternoon ended with him grappling with Joel Lynch as the anger of squandering such a commanding position got the better of the big Serbian striker. It wasn’t the ending anyone connected with Fulham would have envisaged.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks, Targett, Odoi, Ream; McDonald, Johansen, Cairney (Rui Fonte 79); Piazon (Ayité 68) R. Sessegnon (Sheyi Ojo 79), Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Button, Christie, Norwood, Kamara.
BOOKED: Targett, Mitrovic.
GOALS: Cairney (32), Piazon (45).
QUEENS PARK RANGERS (4-4-1-1): Smithies; Furlong, Bidwell, Onouha, Lynch; Luongo, Freeman, Manning (Cousins 74), Wszolek; Eze (Smyth 69); Smith (Washington 69). Subs (not used): Ingram, Baptiste, Perch, Bright-Samuel.
BOOKED: Luongo, Cousins, Lynch.
GOALS: Luongo (45+3), Wszolek (81).
REFEREE: Chris Kavanagh (Manchester).