In September surrendered a two-goal lead at Brighton and Slavisa Jokanovic’s side never rediscovered the swashbuckling football that had characterised their rise to the Premier League. Tonight, at Craven Cottage, in a strange reversal of that glorious sunkissed afternoon at the AMEX Stadium, Claudio Ranieri’s men breathed some life into their stagnant relegation battle by storming back from a two-goal deficit. The villain on the south coast Aleksandar Mitrovic, who conceded a late penalty that day, was the hero tonight – proving pretty much unplayable as Fulham scored four goals without reply whilst playing a brand of football that would have had Jokanovic purring.
The transformation from a ragged side that seemed resigned to relegation at half-time was quite something. Fulham were fitful in the first half and Albion appeared likely to score every time they mounted an attack down the right flank. Chris Hughton’s side went ahead with their first serious attack in the third minute. Martin Montoya, a summer transfer target for the Whites, was afforded far too much time to advance into a dangerous position and whip over a dangerous cross for the seasoned poacher Glenn Murray, who stole ahead of Maxime Le Marchand and steered a fine finish into the far corner.
The veteran’s instinctive finishing doubled Brighton’s lead after seventeen minutes. The goal was unorthodox in its creation with Pascal Gross’s ambitious overhead kick causing consternation in the Fulham back line – Murray was the quickest to react and flicked another impudent finish past the helpless Sergio Rico. The 35 year-old hadn’t scored in eight league games prior to his visit to west London and should have had a hat-trick before the interval. He snuck clear of Denis Odoi but headed the wrong side of the far post. Rico was totally beaten by a thumping drive from Davy Propper that rattled the crossbar – and Fulham, whose only serious openings fell to the lively Ryan Babel and the otherwise anonymous Andre Schurrle, were unsurprisingly booed off at half-time.
The home side’s lethargy had forced Ranieri into an early reshuffle as he introduced Tom Cairney in place of Ream with just 26 minutes on the clock and the Scottish playmaker at least established a foothold in the contest for Fulham. Luciano Vietto came on for Schurrle at the break and produced his liveliest display of the season, roaming infield from the left wing to great effect. You felt an early goal was necessary and it arrived from the unlikeliest of sources when Calum Chambers, outstanding again in the holding midfield role he has made his own, displayed magnificent technique to fire an unstoppable effort into the top corner from 20 yards after Mitrovic’s knock-down.
That goal galvanised Fulham. The Hammersmith End’s boos had now turned to exhortations of encouragement. Against all the odds, Ranieri’s men pulled themselves level just before the hour mark. A corner sparked pinball in the Brighton box and the ball was only half-cleared. The impressive Babel whipped over another dangerous ball and Mitrovic fought off the attentions of two Brighton defenders to reach the ball before Mat Ryan and head into the net. Pandemonium ensued in the stands.
The gravity of Fulham’s situation meant a draw would change little. They had to go for the win and, in doing so, left themselves open at the back. Rico made a splendid reaction save when Murray seemed certain to score from another Montoya cross and the white shirts continued to pour forward. A wonderful move that saw Babel and Vietto link intelligently culminated in Jean-Michael Seri, who probably had his best game into a Fulham shirt, striking the base of the near post with a low drive from the edge of the box.
Fulham kept on asking questions of a creaking Brighton defence and finally Joe Bryan, who looks far more comfortable going forward than defensively, prized it open with a wonderful goal. Mitrovic outjumped Lewis Dunk and planted a header beyond the despairing Ryan to complete the most incredulous of turnarounds. Given how porous their defence has been for most of the season, Fulham weren’t about to sit on their slender lead. Cairney was denied a deserved goal when his lovely curler came back off the crossbar but Babel was alive to the rebound prodding back into the danger area, where Vietto guided home his first Fulham goal to give Ranieri’s men a bit of breathing space.
A guttural roar enveloped Craven Cottage. They might have had a fifth, with Cairney again denied by the crossbar as he sought to bend home a finish after Mitrovic and Babel had pulled the Brighton defence from pillar to post. The effervescence with which Fulham finished the game suggests that they have both the spirit and the quality to make a decent fist of their survival bid but Ranieri will know they need to back up these three points with another strong showing at Crystal Palace on Saturday.
FULHAM (3-4-3): Rico; Odoi, Le Marchand, Ream (Cairney 26); Christie, Bryan (R. Sessegnon 77), Chambers, Seri; Schurrle (Vietto 45), Babel, Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Cisse, Kebano, Ayite.
BOOKED: Seri, Babel.
GOALS: Chambers (47), Mitrovic (58, 74), Vietto (79).
BRIGHTON AND HOVE ALBION (4-3-3): Ryan; Montoya, Bong, Duffy, Dunk; Groß (Andone 77), Stephens, Propper; March, Locardia (Knockaert 71), Murray. Subs (not used): Button, Bruno, Burn, Kayal, Bissouma.
BOOKED: Stephens, Duffy, Dunk.
GOALS: Murray (3, 17).
REFEREE: Lee Probert (South Gloucestershire).