New year, same old defensive failings. Any hope that Scott Parker might have banished the shortcomings that have haunted Fulham’s underwhelming promotion push vanished as an improving Reading side recorded an impressive victory at Craven Cottage this afternoon.
The hosts would have had ambitions of cutting the gap between themselves and the automatic promotion places with a victory, but were left licking their wounds after the Royals proved both far more ruthless in front of goal and much more resilient at the other end of the field. Whilst Michael Morrison and Liam Moore kept Aleksandar Mitrovic quiet, Mark Bowen’s men efficiently picked Fulham off on the counter – with well-worked goals from the energetic John Swift and the evergreen Charlie Adam leaving Fulham far too much to do, despite Ivan Cavaleiro’s low drive halving their arrears just after the hour.
Parker reshuffled his pack with Josh Onomah and Tom Cairney unavailable and a rejigged midfield had to cope with more disruption once Harrison Reed succumbed to a knee injury. The Fulham head coach had handed teenager Matt O’Riley a league debut and the much-lauded academy prospect was a willing outlet for the ball throughout, before being harshly sacrificed as the hosts chased an equaliser in the closing stages. It was an act of brutality that made little sense – especially as Fulham are hoping to encourage O’Riley to stay with the club beyond the summer.
The youngster had entered proceedings at a tricky time, with his side a goal down against the run of play. Fulham began brightly, with Rafael Cabral making a stunning double save to deny both Bobby Decordova-Reid and Anthony Knockaert from close range, but allowed their visitors to take the lead from their very first foray forward. Harrison Reed played an ambitious ball that Cyrus Christie was never in a position to reach and Tyler Blackett surged down the left flank before crossing for Swift to caress a finish beyond Marek Rodak.
Reading were quite happy to operate on the break – and they could have been further in front before half-time. Adam wasn’t too far away with an audacious attempt at chipping Rodak from halfway, whilst Fulham’s monopolisation of the ball didn’t translate in any clear-cut chances. Knockaert’s composure deserted him disastrously on a couple of occasions in the final third, whilst Joe Bryan slashed wide when a corner dropped invitingly for him outside the box.
Bowen, enjoying an immensely satisfying return to the ground where he had been number two to Mark Hughes for a season, then saw his side make the perfect start to the second period. Moore typified their sense of adventure, sending a header over from Ovie Ejaria’s ball in, and after O’Riley surrendered possession in the Fulham half, the Royals bounced. Ejaria sauntered past Christie far too easily and Adam arrived at the near post between two flat-footed centre halves to double the lead.
Parker sent Cavaleiro on for Joe Bryan as Fulham went in search of a dramatic comeback. It looked on when the on-loan Wolves winger took advantage of oceans of space down the left to cut inside and find the bottom corner from just inside the box within four minutes of being introduced – but the hosts’ pretty passing football lacked real penetration.
Fulham’s desperation was encapsulated by Mitrovic’s booking for simulation as he attempted to win a penalty and they struggled to fashion a serious opportunity until five minutes from time. Again, Cavaleiro was the outlet, an immaculate bit of close control giving the Portuguese winger time to drive a low shot against the base of post before Aboubakar Kamara miscued the rebound horribly.
Cavaleiro almost created an equaliser in the first minute of stoppage time but Cabral did superbly to claw a dipping Mitrovic header on to the frame of the goal. Reading hung on for a fourth consecutive victory that their organisation and desire probably merited, leaving Fulham to reflect on why their consistent inconsistency has so undermined Parker’s progressive philosophy.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Rodak; Christie, Bryan (Cavaleiro 57), Odoi, Ream; Reed (O’Riley 19, de la Torre 83), Johansen; Knockaert, Kamara, Decordova-Reid, Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Mawson, McDonald, Harris.
BOOKED: Bryan, Cavaleiro, Mitrovic, Knockaert.
GOAL: Cavaleiro (61).
READING (4-2-3-1): Rafael Cabral; Gunter, Blackett, Morrison, Moore; Pele, Adam (Rinomhota 63); Meite (Miazga 68), Ejaria, Swift; Joao (Baldock 86). Subs (not used): Walker, Obita, McCleary, Boye.
BOOKED: Pele, Joao, Morrison.
GOALS: Swift (14), Adam (48).
REFEREE: Geoff Eltringham (County Durham).