A fabulous strike from Harry Arter on the stroke of half time handed Fulham a third straight victory as Scott Parker’s side battled past promotion rivals Nottingham Forest this evening at the City Ground.
Arter’s second goal in three games was another long-distance effort, but this time no blame could be attached to the opposition goalkeeper. Brice Sampa was grasping at thin air as Arter curled a majestic finish into the top right hand corner from just outside the penalty area. There was an element of fortune in how the goal came about, a typically full-blooded Arter tackle saw the ball rebound back towards the on-loan Bournemouth midfielder before striking his hand as he lay on the ground, but there could be discounting the quality of the finish once he sprung back to his feet.
This was a workmanlike and professional performance from Fulham, who defended from the front with real resilience and were shrewd in their management of both the ball and the game. Parker’s team showed three changes from the one that had taken so long to break down Birmingham City on Saturday – captain Tom Cairney was injured in the closing stages of that dramatic win and was replaced by matchwinner Josh Onomah, whilst Joe Bryan replaced Cyrus Christie and Neeskens Kebano came in for Anthony Knockaert.
Forest seemed content to operate on the counter attack as they had so successfully at Craven Cottage in August and Lewis Grabban almost profited from a dreadful error by stand-in skipper Tim Ream to give Sabri Lamouchi’s side the lead in the seventeenth minute. The American defender made a complete hash of controlling a hopeful punt forward and Grabban surged dangerous towards the penalty area before producing a rather tame shot having been held up by Michael Hector.
Fulham were seeing plenty of the ball, but openings were at a premium at both ends. Bobby Decordova-Reid looked livelier than on his two previous outings as a lone striker, dropping into pockets of space to unsettle the Forest centre halves. One driving run from deep carried particular promise and his dipping drive from 25 yards concerned Samba, who was caught off his line, but flew fractionally over. The contest threatened to turn spiky at several points before the break, chiefly when Onomah was cautioned for kicking out at Samba Sow, whose pesky presence in midfield was missed by the hosts when he didn’t reappear after the interval.
Arter’s astonishing strike in first-half stoppage time altered the complexion of a contest that might have swung the other way moments earlier had Grabban delivered a better finish after being found by a dangerous Matty Cash cross. The centre forward seemed surprised the ball had reached him and stabbed wide. As it was, Arter’s moment of brilliance gave Fulham a lead to protect, something they have done masterfully this season, with Parker’s side securing 21 wins from 24 matches after going ahead.
Lamouchi rang the changes in the second half, but it took Forest a while to break down Fulham’s disciplined shape. Two substitutes combined to fashion an opening when Adama Diakhaby’s cross reached Alfa Semedo but a couple of deflections took the sting out of his shot, which made it much easier for Marek Rodak to handle. Nuno Da Costa almost equalised with a touch of quick thinking when Hector was caught out by a long clearance from Samba, but the forward’s cleverly flicked header was plucked out of the air by a relieved Rodak.
Referee Rob Jones waved away penalty appears at either end of the field and Fulham largely restricted Forest to hopeful efforts from long range, like the one a frustrated Grabban fired in at the end of stoppage time, which was brilliantly blocked by Anthony Knockaert, who got through an outstanding amount of defensive work having been sent on in the closing stages. Forest’s first defeat after lockdown was a significant scalp for the visitors, whose position in the play-offs looks much more secure following three wins in seven days.
Parker conceded that this was far from ‘vintage Fulham’ afterwards, but he will have been heartened by the resolution and spirit shown by a side, who had looked alarming brittle in the key moments of damaging defeats by Brentford and Leeds. A fourteenth clean sheet of the season also indicates that this side, if not as classy as the one that dazzled under Slavisa Jokanovic, is becoming much more miserly as the business end of the campaign approaches.
NOTTINGHAM FOREST (4-2-3-1): Samba; Cash, Ribeiro, Worrall, Figueiredo, Worrall; Sow (Yates 45), Watson (Mighten 85); Ameobi (Diakhaby 57), Silva (Semeda 64), Lolley (Da Costa 45); Grabban. Subs (not used): Smith, Jenkinson, Dawson, Carvalho.
BOOKED: Cash, Ribeiro.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Rodak; Odoi, Bryan, Hector, Ream; Reed, Arter (Johansen 71), Onomah; Cavalaeiro, Kebano (Knockaert 71); Decordova-Reid (Le Marchand 87). Subs (not used): Bettinelli, S. Sessegnon, Christie, Mawson, McDonald, Jasper.
BOOKED: Onomah, Odoi.
GOAL: Arter (45+3).