Many may have scoffed at Scott Parker’s managerial credentials – especially following Fulham’s opening day defeat at Barnsley – but there are signs the feelgood factor has returned to Craven Cottage. The Whites put on a spellbinding display of flowing football, which rivalled any of the eye-catching performances during the Slavisa Jokanovic years, to ruthlessly outclass Millwall and underline their promotion credentials.
There was always a feeling that Parker’s new front three of Ivan Cavaleiro, Anthony Knockaert and Aleksandar Mitrovic might be far too hot to handle for Championship defences and the home side were irresistible going forward this evening. But the stylish way in which they cut Millwall to ribbons and the precise nature of their passing suggests that Parker’s side could be successful in following the Jokanovic blueprint of playing their way out of the Championship. The 934 completed passes during this ninety minutes surpassed anything recorded in this division since Opta began compiling data in 2013/2014 – they simply passed Millwall into submission.
Neil Harris, who praised the majesty of Fulham’s football after the final whistle, probably got his tactics wrong. Millwall played a passive 4-4-1-1 and sat off the home side, which proved to be a fatal mistake. Parker’s charges looked frightening with the time and space to work their magic – the traditional Millwall blood and thunder approach, mirroring the way Barnsley had pressed Fulham out of their comfort zone, might have paid more dividends.
As it was, Fulham played pretty passing patterns from the outset and were soon into their rhythm. Bartosz Bialkowski produced an excellent save to prevent Mitrovic from heading home Knockaert’s floated cross, but the visitors never looked likely to resist wave after wave of Fulham attacks. The opener duly arrived in the fifteenth minute when Tom Cairney, who orchestrated proceedings regally from midfield all night, fed Cavaleiro inside the box. The Portuguese winger darted inside Mahlon Romeo and Connor Mahoney in the blink of an eye and crashed a right-footed effort high into the net.
Fulham’s second was a work of art. Knockaert provided the finish – a rare header as he scampered free to meet Cavaleiro’s cross – to a mesmorising 26 pass move that involved all eleven home players. It was something of a surprise that Millwall, who looked bewildered by the ease with which their opponents played through them, managed to make it through to the break with no further damage to the scoreline. Their plans weren’t helped when Jiri Skalak, making a first league start since February, limped off injured shortly after seeing a deflected shot fielded by Marcus Bettinelli.
Harris shook things up at half-time – with former Fulham forward Matt Smith introduced from the bench – and Millwall briefly threatened a revival. Smith should have scored almost instantly, but snatched at his shot when a Tom Bradshaw effort rebounded at his feet, before Romeo and Bradshaw both had shots blocked in quick succession. The visitors’ lively start to the second period petered out as Fulham began to see more of the ball and there was greater damage to come.
Steven Sessegnon, who enjoyed a remarkably composed home league debut, saw a cross loop onto the top of the bar, but Fulham’s third wasn’t long in coming. There was an element of fortune about it as Harry Arter miscued a speculative shot from the edge of the box and the ball broke to Mitrovic in front of goal. The Serbian reached the loose ball ahead of Bialkowski, who was already committed to a challenge, and scythed him down. Mitrovic blasted home the ensuing spot-kick with the minimum of fuss.
Six minutes later and Fulham had four. Cairney’s impudent chip was perfectly weighted for Cavaleiro to surge away from a tiring Millwall defence and the on-loan Wolves winger took one touch to round the goalkeeper and a second to double his tally for the night as blue shirts toiled in vain to try and quell the danger. The Whites were rarely tested defensively, with Smith denied a late consolation on his return to the Cottage by an offside flag.
Fulham will face fiercer tests this term – perhaps even on Saturday against Nottingham Forest – but the poise and penetration of Parker’s side suggests that they could be a force to be reckoned with in this division once again.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Bettinelli; S. Sessegnon, Bryan, Mawson, Ream; Arter (McDonald 75), Johansen, Cairney (Decordova-Reid 69); Knockaert, Cavaleiro (Kamara 79), Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Rodak, Le Marchand, Christie, Reid.
BOOKED: Mitrovic, Knockaert.
GOALS: Cavaleiro (15, 63), Knockaert (32), Mitrovic (pen 56).
MILLWALL (4-4-1-1): Bialkowski; Romeo, M. Wallace, Pearce, Cooper; Mahoney, Williams (Smith 45), Leonard, Skalak (Ferguson 39); Thompson (Molumby 75); Bradshaw. Subs (not used): Steele, Hutchinson, O’Brien, Bodvarsson.
REFEREE: Darren Bond (Lancashire).