So, if Fulham are to make it back to the Premier League at the first attempt, they will have to do it via the play-offs. That’s the bottom line after Scott Parker’s side failed to beat second-placed West Brom at the Hawthorns this evening – having had the better of the early exchanges, but curiously failed to push for victory in the closing stages. Slaven Bilic’s charges seemed happy to settle for the point which keeps their own automatic promotion hopes in their own hands, with Brentford still snapping at their heels.
What could reasonably have been expected to be a cagey contest actually began at a fairly frenetic pace and proved to be open at either end. Parker was insistent that he had come looking for a fifth straight victory – and Fulham initially began the brighter of the two sides. A swift counter attack carved out the first opportunity with wingers Ivan Cavaleiro and Anthony Knockaert combining effectively, with the Frenchman driving towards the Baggies’ box and seeing a low shot from just outside the area turned aside by Sam Johnstone. Michael Hector almost turned the ensuing corner back across goal for Aleksandar Mitrovic, only for Ahmed Hegazi to scramble the ball behind.
Knockaert nearly created the opening ten minutes later. A clever switch of play from Tim Ream allowed Knockaert the room to cut back onto his left foot and Cavaleiro made up good ground at the far post to keep a deep cross alive, with Hegazi prodding off the line at full stretch as the Portuguese winger’s header drifted dangerously towards goal. Marek Rodak kept out a deflected cross from Grady Diangana that threatened to loop into the far corner before Mitrovic’s header was cleared from underneath his own crossbar by Jake Livermore in stoppage time.
Fulham, who had to replace the injured Cavaleiro with Neeskens Kebano before the break, failed to replicate their earlier adventure in the second period. West Brom were the aggressors for long periods, probing for an opening with Matheus Pereira’s creativity to the fore. Semi Ajaya, scorer of the equaliser at Craven Cottage in the reverse fixture, sent two headers from set plays just wide as well as clearing off the line from Mitrovic at the other end before Diangana somehow contrived to miss the game’s clearest opening having made space for himself with a superb dummy at the back post. The on-loan West Ham winger looked certain to break the deadlock had checked inside Denis Odoi, but Rodak made an instinctive save with his feet. The excellent Harrison Reed conjured up a crucial challenge as Hal Robson-Kanu burst through on goal to help preserve Fulham’s third straight clean sheet.
The lack of a telling final ball let Fulham down throughout. Mitrovic toiled manfully to get the visitors a foothold in the final third – but the visitors failed to get numbers forward to support him on a frequent basis. They might have stolen an unlikely victory when he cushioned a high ball down for Knockaert to strike from 25 yards, but the Frenchman’s dipping volley crashed off the crossbar and behind. It proved to be the closest either side came to goal – and Parker will now probably rotate his squad, which has solely missed the pace and power of the injured Aboubakar Kamara as well as the guile of captain Tom Cairney of late, as he plans for the play-offs.
WEST BROM (4-2-3-1): Johnstone; O’Shea, Townsend, Hegazi, Ajayi; Livermore, Sawyers; Diangana (Robinson 85), Grosicki (Phillips 45), Pereira; Austin (Robson-Kanu 66). Subs (not used): Bond, Furlong, Bartley, Brunt, Harper.
BOOKED: Pereira, Livermore, Townsend.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Rodak; Odoi, Bryan, Hector, Ream (Christie 90); Reed, Onomah (Johansen 77), Decordova-Reid; Knockaert, Cavaleiro (Kebano 43), Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, S. Sessegnon, Mawson, Le Marchand, McDonald, Arter.
REFEREE: Geoff Eltringham (County Durham).