Aleksandar Mitrovic’s first Fulham hat-trick helped Fulham return to winning ways as they clinched a nervy victory over Luton Town in a five goal thriller at Craven Cottage tonight.
Mitrovic handed the Hatters a lesson in finishing to twice help the Whites establish a two-goal cushion – but Fulham’s defensive frailties, brutally exposed at Stoke on Saturday, resurfaced again as Graeme Jones’ side threatened to claim a battling point. The excellent Izzy Brown helped Luton gain a foothold in the second half and a glancing header from Dan Potts was followed by a close-range finish from substitute Kazenga Lua-Lua as the visitors made Scott Parker’s side sweat until the very end.
Parker made two changes after his 3-4-1-2 system slumped at Stoke, with Marek Rodak handed his league debut in goal and Denis Odoi returning at right back as Fulham switched to a back four. The hosts almost made the perfect start but James Shea saved well from Ivan Cavaleiro, but Luton were looking lively on the break. James Collins might feel he should have done better than fire wide after he had seized upon a poor pass from Tim Ream and latched onto Brown’s sumptuous through ball – and Luton were punished almost immediately.
Bobby Decordova-Reid intercepted a wayward pass from Matty Pearson and Cavaleiro drove towards the box before slipping a simple pass into the path of Mitrovic. The Serbian striker shrugged off the attentions of Sonny Bradley and smashed a venomous finish beyond Shea. The Luton keeper then did his best to keep Town in the contest saving bravely from Tom Cairney and Anthony Knockaert in quick succession – before an acrobatic overhead from Mitrovic drifted harmlessly over the bar.
Luton still threatened on the counter-attack with Brown and Collins causing real problems for the Fulham rearguard. The Chelsea loanee looked dangerous every time he ran at the Fulham defence and he delivered another excellent pass that allowed Collins to canter past Odoi only for the forward to lose his composure as he snatched at his shot.
Fulham finished the half strongly but couldn’t find a second. Knockaert curled fractionally wide when he cut inside onto his left foot before Cavaleiro fizzed an effort past the opposite corner and Mitrovic was inches away from connecting with a low cross from Joe Bryan after the full back had robbed James Bree of possession.
Luton emerged for the second half with a fiery team talk from Jones ringing in their ears. They might have been level straight away when Harry Cornick fired into the side netting after being released by Brown, who then saw a deflected shot pushed aside by Rodak. Their enterprising start deserved better than going further behind but Fulham doubled the lead from their first real attack of the second half.
Knockaert slipped a ball down the side of the Luton defence and Decordova-Reid raced beyond Potts before picking out Mitrovic with a low cross – giving the former Newcastle forward the simplest of finishes from close range. But the Hatters deserve immense credit for refusing to fold and they found a route back into the contest on the hour mark.
Brown floated a free-kick into the danger area and Potts ran across Ream to head home his first goal in more than a year. That briefly stunned the hosts but they summoned up a fine riposte seven minutes later when Mitrovic’s diving header from a cleverly worked free-kick between Cairney and Bryan took him to the top of the Championship scoring charts.
Fulham briefly threatened to make the scoreline look much more comfortable with Shea pushing away a powerful Cavaleiro drive, but they were left hanging on for the final minute of stoppage time after Luke Bolton got to the byline and delivered a low cross that Lua-Lua tapped in at the back post. That late setback proved only a consolation – but it was hard to avoid the feeling that Fulham, with all their attacking talent, had made this victory far too difficult for themselves.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Rodak; Odoi, Bryan, Mawson, Ream; Reed (McDonald 85), Decordova-Reid (Johansen 81), Cairney; Knockaert (Onomah 70), Cavaleiro, Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, S. Sessegnon, Le Marchand, Kamara.
GOALS: Mitrovic (16, 53, 67).
LUTON TOWN (4-3-3): Shea; Bree (Bolton 70), Potts, Pearson, Bradley; Tunnicliffe, Cranie, Mpanzu; Cornick (Lua-Lua 78), Brown, Collins (McManaman 78). Subs (not used): Sluga, Shinnie, Jones, Butterfield.
GOALS: Potts (60), Lua-Lua (90+3).
REFEREE: John Brooks (Leicestershire).