Two stunning strikes from Anthony Knockaert and Harry Arter helped Fulham overcome a much-changed Aston Villa side and reach the fourth round of the FA Cup.
Dean Smith made no excuses for altering his starting eleven, with an eye on Tuesday’s League Cup semi-final and trying to secure Villa’s place in the top flight for another season, admitting that the world’s oldest club cup competition had lost something of its sparkle. There was something of an experimental nature of Scott Parker’s line-up as well with Joe Bryan operating as a left-winger in a side that was without a recognised centre forward.
But the absence of Aleksandar Mitrovic and Aboubakar Kamara allowed a fluid front three to outfox Villa with a combination of movement and probing passing. Bryan survived an early injury scare to turn in an adventurous display in an unfamiliar position, whilst Ivan Cavaleiro and Knockaert interchanged more effectively than they have for most of what has been an individually underwhelming season to date. Fulham began the brighter but struggled for penetration in the final third with a couple of dangerous crosses from Cyrus Christie going uncoverted.
Villa gradually got a foothold in the contest and fashioned a couple of promising openings. Former Brentford midfielder Jota, a regular Fulham scourge in seasons past, drilled a speculative shot just past the post after the home side had failed to clear a free-kick. Jonathan Kodija lost his composure having waltzed past three Fulham defenders, including new arrival Michael Hector who made his debut at centre back, before spooning a shot over from a tight angle whilst Ahmed Elmohamady glanced a free-kick fractionally wide with his head.
Bryan blasted an effort towards goal that James Chester did well to divert wide after another threatening run in from the flank, but it was Villa who should have gone in front on the stroke of half time. Kodija slipped away from the attentions of Alfie Mawson far too easily and squared for Anwar El Ghazi eight yards out, only for the Dutch international to be denied by Marek Rodak, who clawed the shot away at full stretch with his left hand.
A game that had been short on quality in the final third came to life in the second half as both sides sought to avoid a replay they could do without. Knockaert drove infield from the field and fired a shot agonisingly across goal, but Villa failed to heed that warning.
Instead, the on-loan Brighton winger opened the scoring in mesmerising fashion ten minutes after the break. After making a vital tackle in his own area, Bryan presented him with the opportunity to saunter forward down the left, where there appeared to be little danger, and Knockaert seemed outnumbered even as he drifted inside. A hesitant Villa back line stood off, Knockaert worked the ball onto his right foot and curled a mangificent finish around Ørjan Nyland and into the top corner. It felt like the goal he’d been trying to score all season – and it enlivened the Cup tie.
Fulham went in search of a second and Bryan, having opened up Villa’s defence with a one-two at pace with Cavaleiro, drew a sprawling save from Nyland after shooting towards goal from seven yards out. Chester and Bjorn Engels blocked follow-up efforts as Villa scrambled the ball to safety.
The visitors profited from Fulham’s inability to extend their advantage when Jota floated a ball in behind the home defence. Hector looked the favourite to reach it but inexplicably allowed Kodija to drift beyond him. The forward lifted a lovely finish over the advancing Rodak with El Ghazi making sure of the equaliser by rolling it over the line from close range. Fulham looked shaky in the immediate aftermath of losing their lead, with Rodak pushing away a Jota curler as the hosts backed off.
Parker then gave Arter his first taste of action since October and his brother-in-law paid the Fulham boss back into unexpected fashion. There appeared nothing on when the Bournemouth loanee collected a square pass from Stefan Johansen some thirty yards out two minutes later, but Arter’s ambitious strike swerved and dipped into the top corner leaving Nyland pawing at fresh air.
Villa probed for an equaliser without carrying a great deal of threat and Parker’s decision to send on 17 year-old Jay Stansfield, who has been scoring goals for fun at youth level since signing from Exeter in the summer, offered a different type of threat up front. The teenager certainly made an impact on his senior debut, almost laying on another one for Knockaert with a teasing cross from the left, and worrying the Villa defence with his pace. Knockaert could have sealed it late one but, after slaloming his way through the Villa defence, he opted to try and dink a finish over Nyland rather than playing a pass to his right with others waiting for a tap-in.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Rodak; Christie, Odoi, Hector, Mawson; McDonald (Arter 72), Johansen; Onomah (Stansfield 82); Knockaert, Bryan, Cavaleiro (de la Torre 84). Subs (not used): Bettinelli, O’Riley, Harris, Jasper.
BOOKED: McDonald, Knockaert, Hector.
GOALS: Knockaert (54), Arter (74).
ASTON VILLA (4-3-3): Nyland; Elmohamady, Taylor, Chester, Engels; Lansbury, Nakamba (Vassilev 80), Hourihane; El Ghazy (Ramsey 86), Jota (Trezeguet 76), Kodija. Subs (not used): Kalinic, Konsa, Guilbert, Hause.
BOOKED: Nakamba, Taylor, Lansbury.
GOAL: El Ghazi (63).
REFEREE: Craig Pawson (South Yorkshire).