Only Fulham could buzz around like Brazilians for half an hour, strolling into a three-goal lead, surrender the initiative by conceding a couple of quick goals and spend the rest of a crazy afternoon hanging on for three points. Relief rather than rapture greeted the final whistle at Craven Cottage – especially after a string of superb saves from Marek Rodak prevented Huddersfield from completing one of the most unlikely comebacks of the season.
Such was their dominance of the second period, the Terriers could probably count themselves unlucky not to be heading home with a point. Rodak made three high quality stops to deny the lively Karlan Grant and kept out an effort from the impressive Arsenal loanee Emile Smith-Rowe, before some desperate defending from Cyrus Christie diverted Frazier Campbell’s effort wide when the substitute seemed destined to score and Elias Kuchanga fired over in the final minute of stoppage time.
Danny Cowley was left to rue a succession of defensive lapses that left the visitors with just too big a mountain to climb. Fulham looked far more potent with Aleksandar Mitrovic leading the line after the Serbian striker made an earlier than expected return from his ankle injury, although the opening goal on ten minutes owed everything to the individual brilliance of a man who had been shouldering the striking burden in Mitrovic’s absence. Bobby Decordova-Reid submitted a contender for goal of the season with a sensational strike in the tenth minute. There appeared little on when he collected a raking ball from Michael Hector on the left flank, but he burst past Juninho Baptista, shimmied inside former Fulham defender Richard Stearman and measured a fabulous finish into the far corner.
Fulham were fast out of the traps and brimming with confidence. Their second was wonderfully worked five minutes later. Christie cruised deep into Huddersfield territory and drilled a low ball into Tom Cairney, but the Scottish international flicked it up before lashing a gorgeous volley beyond Joel Campbell with his weaker right foot in the blink of an eye. The visitors looked shellshocked with their own attempts at pretty passing triangles falling short – and they looked dead and buried when the Whites added a third just after the half hour mark.
This time Cairney and Joe Bryan combined well down the left with the full back’s teasing ball expertly flicked into the net by the returning Mitrovic, who had shrugged off the attentions of Stearman and Christopher Schlinder to register nineteenth of the season. At that stage, the only question appeared how many Fulham might notch up – but the contest quickly became a more competitive one as a spirited Huddersfield side roared back before half-time.
Both goals were probably preventable. Schlinder returned a half-cleared free-kick with interest from the right and Smith-Rowe forced the ball home from close range, despite Denis Odoi’s best efforts to clear. There was plenty of time for the Terriers to stage a revival and they narrowed the arrears to a single goal just four minutes later. Bacuna robbed Decordova-Reid of possession and was allowed to run almost 50 yards almost unchallenged before finding Smith-Rowe on the right and Steve Mounie clinically converted the youngster’s low cross to give Town real belief.
Huddersfield began the second half in the same vein. Rodak tipped over a venomous free-kick from Grant after a dangerous Smith-Rowe run was cynically ended by Kevin McDonald’s late lunge. Grant, who had been subdued for much of the first half, was quickly becoming a potent threat and was repelled by Rodak at the near post after a smart interchange with Smith-Rowe. The Arsenal midfielder was next to be denied by a stretching Rodak, who parried another Grant effort, as Fulham struggled to rebuff the Huddersfield onslaught.
Scott Parker’s men were by now exclusively operating on the break. Gone was the assurance of their first half display. Christie fired fractionally wide of the far post on a rare foray forward but substitute Aboubakar Kamara spurned the best chance to put the game beyond Huddersfield, slicing weakly wide after Mitrovic had held the ball up brilliantly and sent the Frenchman clear on goal.
In a frantic finale, Huddersfield came close to snatching the point their persistence merited. First, Christie slid in to deflect Campbell’s side just wide of the far post and then Mounie headed wide from the corner after wriggling clear of his marker. As six minutes of stoppage time ticked away, Grant blazed over at the back post as Fulham failed to clear their lines – and the hosts were grateful to hear the final whistle.
What became a slender victory cut the gap to second-placed Leeds to just three points after Marcelo Bielsa’s side lost again – but Parker was firm in his belief afterwards that his side will need to produce far more complete performances if they are sustain a push for automatic promotion from here. The Championship’s entertainers will need to become much more miserly in the weeks ahead.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Rodak; Christie, Bryan, Hector, Odoi; McDonald (Arter 62), Cairney (Johansen 76), Onomah; Cavaleiro (Kamara 57), Decordova-Reid, Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, S. Sessegnon, de la Torre, Kebano.
BOOKED: McDonald, Christie, Johansen, Rodak.
GOALS: Decordova-Reid (10), Cairney (15), Mitrovic (31).
HUDDERSFIELD TOWN (4-2-3-1): Coleman; Bacuna, Toffolo, Stearman, Schlinder; O’Brien, Chalobah (King 83); Kachunga, Grant, Smith-Rowe (Pyke 89); Mounie (Campbell 76). Subs (not used): Chapman, Stankovic, Brown, Dunhaney.
GOALS: Smith-Rowe (34), Mounie (39).
REFEREE: Gavin Ward (Surrey).