Fulham’s dreams of automatic promotion died with a whimper rather than a bang at Elland Road. Scott Parker’s side were in the game for an hour, but a lack of clinical finishing and yet more comical defending condemned the visitors to a second damaging defeat in the space of a week. From hoping to reel in the top two before the end of the lockdown, the Londoners might now be left hanging on for a place in the top six.
Parker opted to pair Harrison Reed, excellent against Brentford last week, with Harry Arter as holding midfielders to try and stifle Leeds’ creativity. It worked well for the most part, but Arter inexplicably presented the ball to Helder Costa down the right. The Portuguese winger surged towards the box and delivered an inviting cross for Patrick Bamford to guide home the vital opening goal from the edge of the box inside the first ten minutes. Bamford hasn’t exactly been prolific in front of goal for Leeds this season, but it was still criminal for the Fulham defence to afford him such time and space in front of goal.
Fulham’s attempts to show more fight that they had mustered for last week’s local derby might have backfired. Aleksandar Mitrovic doesn’t usually much encouragement to get up for the battle but he should have seen red for a ridiculous early elbow on Ben White – and might still be ruled out for three games given that the match officials appeared to miss the incident entirely.
The visitors were posing Leeds plenty of problems, but couldn’t make the most of what had actually been a pretty imposing start. Anthony Knockaert spurned a couple of good openings down the right and when Mitrovic dropped a little deeper, space opened up for both Arter and Bobby Decordova-Reid inside the area but neither could take advantage of inviting chances. Fulham were also furious that a penalty wasn’t awarded for handball by Tyler Roberts, but their lack of ruthlessness was a far bigger contributor to this defeat. Ilan Meslier batted away strikes from Knockaert and Mitrovic, before the Serbian striker sent a header inches wide from Joe Bryan’s corner.
Fulham finished the first half on top, which was the cue for Marcelo Biesla to display the sort of decisiveness that has characterised his illustrious managerial career. He took off the goalscorer and creator to give Leeds more dynamism in midfield and it paid immediate dividends. Roberts and Harrison might have doubled Leeds’ lead before the crucial second goal came – and the manner in which it arrived broke Fulham’s resolve.
The visitors were on the attack, with Decordova-Reid missing a glorious chance having contrived to miskick when Bryan’s deep corner landed at his feet. Meslier quickly set Leeds off on a counter attack, with Jack Harrison – switched to the right flank for the second period – scurrying down the touchline before producing a low cross that was calmy converted by one of the half-time substitutes, Ezgjan Alioski. Three Fulham defenders fell to the turf before the ball reached Alioski, something of a metaphor for how their hopes of getting back into the automatic promotion picture have nosedived so swiftly.
Getting back into a contest against such accomplished front runners as Leeds was always going to be an uphill battle, but there was little prospect of a revival from two goals down. Fulham pushed forward anyway, more in hope than expectation, and were clinically picked off again. Pablo Hernandez, surprisingly left out following Leeds’ own capitulation in Cardiff last weekend, produced a peach of ball to set Harrison away from Bryan and the former Manchester City winger raced clear, tucking a shot under the helpless Marek Rodak before celebrating Leeds’ emphatic win with the cardboard cut outs behind the goal.
Fulham’s poor form has come at just the wrong time. Defeat to QPR in another derby on Tuesday could leave them looking over their shoulder at the likes of Cardiff and company – and there was little to lift spirits as ambition gave way to damage limitation. Neeskens Kebano was sent off late on for a second yellow card – and if Mitrovic receives a sanction for his unwarranted aggression in the aftermath of this damaging defeat – you have to wonder where the goals will come from in the run in.
LEEDS UNITED (4-1-4-1): Meslier; Ayling, Dallas, White, Cooper; Phillips; Costa (Alioski 45), Harrison (Poveda 83), Klich (Douglas 80), Roberts; Bamford (Hernandez 45, Shackleton 90). Subs (not used): Berardi, Miazek, Strujik, Stevens.
BOOKED: Alioski, Phillips.
GOALS: Bamford (10), Alioski (56), Harrison (71).
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Rodak; Odoi, Bryan (Le Marchand 75), Hector, Ream; Arter (Kebano 63), Reed; Knockaert (Cavaleiro 70), Decordova-Reid (Onomah 75), Cairney (Johansen 75); Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, S. Sessegnon, Christie, McDonald.
BOOKED: Knockaert, Kebano, Cavaleiro.
SENT OFF: Kebano (90).
REFEREE: Tony Harrington (Cleveland).