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Fulham cut the gap to second-placed Cardiff City at the top of the Championship to five points with a commanding win over Leeds United at Craven Cottage this evening as they kept their hopes of automatic promotion to the Premier League alive. A fortuitous first half goal from Kevin McDonald, where the Scottish midfielder unwittingly diverted in a header by Aleksandar Mitrovic, gave the hosts the half-time lead their adventurous football deserved before the Serbian striker put the game beyond Paul Heckingbottom’s side in the second half.

But a brilliant save from Marcus Bettinelli seconds before the on-loan Newcastle striker doubled Fulham’s lead illustrated the fine margins between success and failure in this unforgiving division. The Fulham goalkeeper thwarted Caleb Ekuban as the young striker bore down on goal and the hosts immediately punished his glaring miss through a lightning counter-attack that culminated with former Leeds trainee Tom Cairney squaring for Mitrovic to bury a low shot beyond the impressive young goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell.

Heckingbottom had said his side wouldn’t merely come to Craven Cottage and sit behind the ball and, despite having to do without seven first-teamers through injury, Leeds were as good as their manager’s word. The visitors, roared on by a vociferous travelling support, created a half chance inside the first minute with makeshift full back Stuart Dallas finding space inside the box but the Northern Ireland international sent a speculative shot high into the Hammersmith End.

That was about as good as it got for Leeds in the first period, however. Slavisa Jokanovic’s side, keen to make the most of Cardiff dropping points at Sheffield United last night, were soon applying pressure down Dallas’ flank with Matt Targett and the recalled Ryan Sessegnon wreaking havoc along the left. Mitrovic might have done better than steer wide from Targett’s inviting cross but six minutes later Fulham went even closer. This time Sessegnon scampered free and his low cross was slammed against the far post by Floyd Ayite – when the unaccompanied winger might have done better.

The Whites were in the ascendancy and were only denied an opener by an outstanding save from the ensuing corner by Bailey-Farrell, who somehow kept out Mitrovic’s downward header. The home side continued to apply relentless pressure on the Leeds goal, with McDonald firing in a couple of shots from long range and Pontus Jansson making a brave block to thwart Stefan Johansen as the Norwegian seemed set to turn in Ayite’s centre.

It was last ditch stuff from Leeds and, eventually the visiting defence buckled, although the goal was one of the scrappiest Jokanovic’s easy-on-the-eye side have scored all season. Targett sent over a dangerous corner from the left, which Mitrovic met with a powerful header that struck McDonald’s backside and flew into the bottom corner. The midfielder’s muted celebrations conveyed that he knew little about the crucial touch – as he was facing away from goal at the time – but Jokanovic was far more animated in acclaiming the vital breakthrough on the touchline.

Leeds didn’t muster a shot on target in the first period, but they had their two best moments after falling behind. An errant pass from the otherwise excellent Tim Ream gifted possession to Pablo Hernandez and he carried the ball up to the edge of the box before releasing Samuel Saiz, but the offside flag had been raised before the midfielder drew a sprawling save from Bettinelli. In stoppage time, Gaetano Berardi lashed over on the volley after Fulham had failed to clear a Leeds corner – as the visitors offered a reminder of just how slender a single-goal lead might prove.

The game followed a similar pattern initially after the break as Fulham went in search of a second goal. Dallas did well to divert a dangerous cross from Ryan Fredericks over his own bar with Sessegnon skulking behind him at the far post before the teenager was inadvertently denied by Mitrovic when the Serbian blocked his goalbound effort with his head before Peacock-Farrell did superbly at full stretch to turn away Sessegnon’s shot after a clever interchange with Johansen.

Leeds then threw caution to the wind and gradually managed to stall Fulham’s momentum. The visitors found a way to get Saiz and the classy Hernandez more involved in proceedings, although their first effort of the second half was a speculative long-range drive from Rolando Vieira that went well wide. Heckingbottom’s side were now playing some clever football and spurned a great chance to level matters when Ekuban, released by an excellent ball from Beradi, drilled a low shot against the onrushing Bettinelli.

Leeds were cruelly punished at the other end. Ream worked the ball clear to Stefan Johansen who crossed the halfway line at pace and a clever run and pass from Mitrovic worked some space for Cairney inside the box. The Fulham playmaker cut back onto his left foot and teed up Mitrovic, who drilled home his eighth goal in as many games through a crowded penalty area.

Fulham might have extended their lead further as Fredericks lashed into the side netting from an acute angle but, to their immense credit, Leeds kept on playing until the final whistle – making the last quarter of an hour far tenser than it should have been considering the scoreline. Their frustrating evening was encapsulated by an incredible miss from substitute Jay-Roy Grot with ten minutes to play, however, when he contrived to head over a delicious ball from Saiz despite being unmarked and two yards out.

FULHAM (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks, Targett, Odoi, Ream; McDonald (Kalas 88), Johansen, Cairney; Ayite (Norwood 67), R. Sessegnon, Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Button, Christie, Kebano, Piazon, Kamara.

BOOKED: McDonald, Bettinelli, Johansen.

GOALS: McDonald (33), Mitrovic (63).

LEEDS UNITED (4-2-3-1): Peacock-Farrell; Dallas, Berardi, Jansson, Pennington; O’Kane (Phillips 23), Vieira; Hernandez, Saiz, Alioski (Grot 72); Ekuban (Lassoga 72). Subs (not used): Lonergan, Anita, Cibicki, Pearce.

BOOKED: Jansson.

REFEREE: Peter Bankes (Merseyside).

ATTENDANCE: 21,538.