Given the sloppy nature of Fulham’s start against high-flying Watford this lunchtime, Slavisa Jokanovic would have been mightily pleased with the way he side ended the contest with a point. For the second week in succession, the Whites surrendered an all-too-avoidable goal inside the first ninety seconds and, just as at the Etihad last weekend, Fulham could have been dead and buried within the first half. That they produced a stirring second half recovery, and might have nicked all three points at the death, owed much to the predatory instincts of the inspirational Aleksandar Mitrovic, some real resilience and two decisive half-time changes from the head coach.
Jokanovic selected his sixth different back four of the season, but the hosts’ defensive frailties didn’t take long to come to the surface. From a straightforward throw in, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Calum Chambers, Alfie Mawson and Jean-Michael Seri all squandered opportunities to clear their lines, allowing Will Hughes to poke a ball through for Andre Gray, who gleefully tucked a finish past the stranded Marcus Bettinelli. Gray and the powerful Troy Deeney have struck up a potent partnership that has helped the Hornets surge towards the top of the Premier League table and they looked likely to secure another victory inside a first half that the visitors thoroughly dominated.
Only a combination of the brilliance of Marcus Bettinelli in the Fulham goal and some careless finishing kept the deficit down to a single goal. Bettinelli, who was outstanding in the 3-0 defeat by champions Manchester City last week, made himself big to deny Deeney at his near post and alive to the danger when a woefully short back header from Mawson gave Gray a glorious chance to grab his second – spreading himself to repel the former Brentford forward’s snapshot. In between those two blocks, Fulham escaped unharmed when Christian Kabasele’s bullet header bounced off Ryan Sessegnon’s back and away to safety at a Watford corner.
Mawson and Chambers looked all at sea at the heart of an overworked Fulham defence. Mawson was hauled off at half-time having been booked for a wild hack at Roberto Pereyra, whilst Chambers had donated the ball to Watford in dangerous positions with concerning regularity. Fosu-Mensah was more than fortunate to escape a red card midway through the first period after a late lunge at Deeney and Fulham could count themselves lucky to still be in the contest at the break, although Pereyra was only a yard away from curling in a splendid finish from an acute angle just before half-time.
Jokanovic’s change of shape and personnel proved pivotal at the break. Fulham had threatened only fleetingly in the first half, with Luciano Vietto twice denied by the alertness of Ben Foster, and referee Martin Atkinson waving away a penalty appeal when Mitrovic appeared to have been flattened in the box. They struggled to keep the ball – something that was rectified when the peerless Denis Odoi replaced Mawson – and Jokanovic also gambled by introducing Floyd Ayite for Kevin McDonald to try and give his side another outlet in attack.
It took just four minutes for Fulham to fashion an opportunity far more clear-cut than they had managed in the first half. Andre Schurrle, now operating off Mitrovic, darted into space down the left and delivered a teasing cross that the Serbian striker rose majestically to meet with his head. He was furious that he ballooned it harmlessly over the bar but it sounded a warning to Watford of Fulham’s attacking intentions. Vietto then blazed disappointing in the Hammersmith End after a lightning counter attack before Bettinelli got down sharply to deny Gray at his near post at the other end.
Fulham gradually began to work up a head of steam and stepped up the intensity when Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa replaced the ineffectual Stefan Johansen. Patterns of patient possession football penned Watford back and Mitrovic, who had sent two headed half chances wide, flicked home his fifth goal of the season from close range after fine work from Vietto and Sessegnon down the left with twelve minutes to go. The lively Argentinian scampered away from Daryl Janmaat and had the composure to pick out Mitrovic, who got the deftest of touches beyond Foster at the near post to level matters.
A gripping and open finale ensued. Deeney robbed Chambers outside the Fulham defender’s own box but then lacked the conviction to go for goal himself, overhitting his intended pass for Isaac Success, before the substitute almost found a winner on his own, working half a yard of space beautifully with a shimmy, but Bettinelli blocked the Nigerian’s shot with his legs. It was Jokanovic’s side who almost stole the victory at the death with Foster producing a magnificent save to deny Mitrovic a winner before he thudded a header against the bar. The former England goalkeeper somehow clawed away a curler from 20 yards that looked destined for the top corner but could only watch as Mitrovic clattered the crossbar with a venomous header from the resulting corner.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Fosu-Mensah, R. Sessegnon, Mawson (Odoi 45), Chambers; McDonald (Ayite 45), Johansen (Anguissa 64), Seri; Schurrle, Vietto, Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Rico, Christie, Le Marchand, Kamara.
BOOKED: Mawson, Fosu-Mensah.
GOAL: Mitrovic (78).
WATFORD (4-2-2-2): Foster; Janmaat, Holebas, Kabasele, Cathcart; Capoue, Doucoure; Hughes (Femenia 70), Pereyra (Sema 90); Deeney, Gray (Success 80). Subs (not used): Gomes, Mariappa, Chalobah, Masina.
GOAL: Gray (2).
REFEREE: Martin Atkinson (West Yorkshire).