Lady luck smiled on Fulham this evening as they inched above Cardiff City with a tense win over Sunderland at Craven Cottage and ensured the race for the second automatic promotion place into the Premier League will head into the final weekend of the season. Former Fulham captain and manager Chris Coleman, making a return to the club where his managerial career began sixteen years ago, was incensed that referee Peter Bankes waved two strong Sunderland penalty shouts before Aleksandar Mitrovic’s decisive header was allowed to stand despite the Serbian striker being marginally offside from Stefan Johansen’s free-kick.
Small margins matter a great deal in a league as competitive as the Championship. It was to Coleman’s immense credit that Sunderland, with only pride to play for after they had been relegated following a home defeat by Burton Albion last weekend, went toe-to-toe with Slavisa Jokanovic’s side. The Mackems will consider themselves unfortunate not to have completed a remarkable double over Fulham as they followed their win at the Stadium of Light in December, which appeared then to have breathed new life into their battle against the drop, with an energetic and enterprising performance that worried an expectant home crowd long before Joel Asoro marked his nineteenth birthday with a superb finish past Marcus Bettinelli from 20 yards.
The visitors were the quicker to settle on a wet evening by the River Thames, with Fulham’s usual flunecy missing in the early exchanges. Ashley Fletcher proved a lively presence in the lone striker role, with he and Asoro linking up impressively to allow the Swedish under-21 international a sight of goal in the twelfth minute but the midfielder skewed his effort wide of the far post. Fletcher then showed his agility by stretching to control a through ball and hold off Tim Ream but the on-loan Middlesbrough forward ballooned his shot over the bar and into the Hammersmith End.
Fulham, whose only moment of adventure to trouble Jason Steele came when the Sunderland stopper clawed away an angled drive from Ryan Sessegnon, failed to heed the visitors’ early warnings. The Black Cats seized the lead just before the half hour mark when Fletcher flicked on a long ball into the path of Asoro, who showed good strength to hold off Matt Targett, and carry the ball into a threatening position before placing an unerring low shot beyond Bettinelli into the bottom right corner of the net. It was the least Sunderland deserved for their excellent start, especially as many had wondered whether Coleman would simply pack the midfield on his return to the Cottage.
Targett manfully tried to shake off a knee injury sustained in the tussle with Asoro that had preceded the teenager’s goal, but had to admit defeat five minutes before the break. Jokanovic went for the most attacking change, throwing on Aboubakar Kamara as the full back’s replacement – and the French forward was Fulham’s most potent threat thereafter. The hosts had threatened an equaliser from their first attack after going behind with Lucas Piazon shooting wide from just outside the box, but Kamara’s pace gave the Whites an outlet in behind the Sunderland defence and he ghosted past Marc Wilson at will.
It was the substitute’s sense of adventure that fashioned Fulham’s equaliser right on the stroke of half time. Kamara burst onto a Stefan Johansen pass and cleverly sent Ryan Fredericks scurrying towards the byline on the overlap. The full back sent in a low cross looking for Mitrovic but Steele’s untimely parry presented an open goal for Piazon to prod home a vital leveller into the unguarded net from close range. Sunderland were furious that referee Bankes had allowed Fulham to mount that counter attack after Ovie Ajaria was caught in the box by Tim Ream – with skipper John O’Shea cautioned for his protests – and the television replays showed that the Black Cats had a strong case for a penalty.
That sense of injustice would have been heightened had Fulham gone in front in first half stoppage time. Sunderland needed a well-timed tackle from Lamina Kone to preserve parity as Tom Cairney seemed set to slam in a second after Mitrovic had risen majestically to nod Kamara’s floated cross back to the Fulham captain, but Kone sniffed out the danger in the nick of time. Fulham had been well short of their past before the break, but stepped up their level after the interval – penning Sunderland back for long periods.
They had a sight of goal inside the first minute of the second half but Johansen blazed wildly over after some intelligent interplay before Steele did well to block a ferocious drive from Kamara after he cut in from the right. Steele then kept out a Johansen free kick and a Mitrovic strike in quick succession as the visitors’ defence threatened to buckle, but Coleman’s charges continued to mount an impressive rearguard action with O’Shea blocking a Fredericks effort after another slalom dribble from the Fulham full back.
Both McDonald and Cairney curled efforts wide as Fulham upped the pressure, with the Fulham’s captain’s curling strike dropping inches wide of the far corner, and just when it seemed as if Jokanovic’s men might fall short of the win they desperately needed, Kamara was sent sprawling on the edge of the box. Johansen bent in a delicious delivery and Mitrovic soared above Fletcher to nod home at the far post, although it wasn’t exactly the Serb’s most convincing header of his Fulham career.
The home side spurned a number of presentable chances to wrap it up. Steele produced a superb save to turn away Johansen’s excellent free kick and that meant Fulham had to grind their way through six minutes of added time before celebrating the slenderest of victories. The three points temporarily take the Whites above Cardiff into second spot, with Neil Warnock’s side heading to Hull City tomorrow afternoon.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks, Targett (Kamara 40), Odoi, Ream; McDonald, Johansen, Cairney (Kalas 90); Piazon (Fonte 74), R. Sessegnon, Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Button, Christie, Norwood, de la Torre.
BOOKED: Bettinelli, Kamara.
GOAL: Piazon (45), Mitrovic (76).
SUNDERLAND (4-2-3-1): Steele; Jones (Matthews 45), Wilson, Kone, O’Shea; McNair, Robson (Maja 45), Asoro, Ejaria (McManaman 77), Honeyman; Fletcher. Subs (not used): Camp, Clarke-Salter, Lua-Lua, Mumba.
BOOKED: O’Shea, Fletcher, Steele, McManaman.
GOAL: Asoro (28).
REFEREE: Peter Bankes (Merseyside).