Anthony Knockaert’s first Championship goal since September was enough to lift Fulham up to third as the Whites ended Middlesbrough’s recent revival with a narrow win at Craven Cottage tonight.
Fulham followed up a battling victory at Hull with a far more complete display against Jonathan Woodgate’s men but, not for the first time this season, lacked the ruthlessness necessary to see their dominance reflected in the scoreline. Much of that may be attributable to the absence of Aleksandar Mitrovic, who has bagged 18 goals in 26 appearances this term and is now sidelined for the next three weeks with an ankle injury. The home side’s approach play was eye-catching but without the Serbian’s finishing instincts Boro were right in the game until the final whistle.
Parker’s side could have settled the contest inside half an hour, but instead had to settle for a smartly taken seventh-minute goal from Knockaert. The French winger had already offered an early warning, hitting a rising shot over the bar as he cut in from the right flank in familiar fashion, before arriving late at the back post to convert Joe Bryan’s devilish cross after the full back had sauntered past Djed Spence, a Fulham academy graduate.
Without Mitrovic, Fulham’s front line had clearly been told to roam freely between the lines and their movement often overwhelmed the Boro back three. Knockaert cut a smart ball back for Josh Onomah, whose speculative shot was parried by Aynsley Pears, before the former Tottenham midfielder contrived to send a free header wide from in front of the far post after being left completely unattended at a corner. Bobby Decordova-Reid, Ivan Caveleiro and Bryan worked a triangle of passes between the Boro defence down the left that left the Portuguese winger through on goal, but Cavaleiro’s finish failed to match the majesty of the move as he drove wastefully over.
Middlesbrough, whose forays forward had been sporadic barring an early Spence shot that whistled wide, almost restored parity with a freak equaliser on the half hour. Hayden Coulson’s attempt at a cross ballooned off the body of Denis Odoi and looped over Marek Rodak only to come back off the crossbar with the Fulham goalkeeper beaten. That seemed to spark some belief in the visitors as a largely isolated Rudy Gestede, selected over the in-form Ashley Fletcher up front, sent a free header over and a mazy Patrick Roberts run came to naught.
Woodgate’s charges were far more ambitious in the second period as the pattern of a previously one-sided contest changed. The organisational qualities of Kevin McDonald, back marshalling things from a defensive midfield position, and a combination of composure and physicality from Michael Hector helped Fulham preserve their lead despite Boro’s growing ambition. Rodak made a late save from Paddy McNair, whilst the excellent Hector also timed a tackle perfectly as Coulson burst in the box before a succession of late corners frayed the nerves in stoppage time. Middlesbrough seemed far more threatening once Fletcher had been summoned from the bench for the final ten minutes, but couldn’t muster a leveller.
Fulham fashioned chances of their own to make the game safe. A Bryan daisycutter was well gathered by Pears at his near post and the home side thought they had doubled their lead when a diving Odoi glanced home Cavaleiro’s free-kick, but the Belgian was ruled marginally offside by a very late flag from the assistant referee. Knockaert then beat his man on the outside and drilled a low cross fractionally beyond the sliding Decordova-Reid, but Fulham had just about done enough to end Middlesbrough’s five match unbeaten run.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Rodak; Odoi, Bryan, Hector, Ream; McDonald, Onomah (Arter 79), Cairney (Johansen 68); Knockaert (Mawson 90+2), Cavaleiro, Decordova-Reid. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Christie, de la Torre, Stansfield.
GOAL: Knockaert (7).
MIDDLESBROUGH (3-4-2-1): Pears; Howson, McNair, Fry; Spencer, Coulson, Clayton (Nmecha 80), Saville (Fletcher 80); Roberts, Tavernier (Wing 61); Gestede. Subs (not used): Mejías, Wood, Johnson, Liddle.
REFEREE: David Webb (Lancashire).