A penalty from the returning Aleksandar Mitrovic settled Fulham’s nerves as they overcame a slow start to beat Cardiff City at Craven Cottage this evening and confirm a place in the Championship play-offs. The Serbian striker – missing for three matches after he was suspended for lashing out at Leeds’ Ben White – rifled home an emphatic spot-kick to reclaim his spot at the top of the division’s scoring charts, before an equally powerful finish from the excellent Josh Onomah put the game beyond Neil Harris’s brave visitors.

The victory, which looked very much in doubt during a tight and tense first half, lifts Scott Parker’s side up to third, taking them temporarily above Brentford who play tomorrow, and to within four points of second-placed West Brom. The Baggies are Fulham’s next opponents in what could prove a critical clash at the Hawthorns on Tuesday night. For now, Parker can reflect on the character of his charges – who bounced back from a dreadful resumption of the season to deliver four straight victories with three consecutive clean sheets and are now learning how to win key fixtures, which could prove crucial come the play-offs.

This game, against a Cardiff side still hoping to force their way into the top six themselves, was a case in point. The visitors were full of high energy pressing in the early stages and might easily have gone in front had they punished some particularly slack Fulham defending. Nathanial Mendez-Laing started brightly down the Cardiff right, seeing a couple of early shots blocked, before Marek Rodak made a smart save to deny the winger at his near post after a woefully underhit pass from Harry Arter had put the hosts in all sorts of trouble.

It was only after hearing a few home truths at the drinks break that Fulham finally clicked into gear. A flowing move down the right ended with Arter screwing a shot well wide from the edge of the area, but the breakthrough was not long in coming. Cyrus Christie’s deep cross was heading for Mitrovic at the far post, but the Fulham forward was shoved to the ground by young full-back Dion Sanderson. Referee Gavin Ward pointed to the spot and Mitrovic made no mistake from twelve yards, finding the top corner with ease.

Cardiff weren’t in a mood to surrender having conceded, though. Anthony Knockaert committed the sort of cynical foul Stefan Johansen specialises in, upending Mendez-Laing when he was in full flight and breaking dangerously across the halfway line – at the expense of a yellow card. Midfielder Joe Ralls went close twice in quick succession – first striking the crossbar with a beautifully struck half volley and then heading over unchallenged from close range. The Bluebirds were indebted to goalkeeper Alex Smithies for keeping them in it just before the break – Bobby Decordova-Reid was denied a spectacular goal against his old side, when Smithies splendidly tipped his curler onto the crossbar.

The former Cardiff forward had no excuses in stoppage time, though, when Knockaert – who had swapped flanks to pop up on the left – darted in space and whipped in an inviting cross only for Decordova-Reid to somehow glance the deftest of headers wide from a couple of yards out. It was a bewildering miss rather in keeping with his luck in front of goal this season.

The second period saw Fulham dominate possession and carve out more chances in front of goal. They were perhaps fortunate to still have eleven men on the field when Michael Hector was only booked for lashing out at Callum Paterson before a quick throw out from Marek Rodak led to further controversy when Joe Bryan’s floated cross from the left looked to have picked out Mitrovic. The Serbian striker was furious not to have been awarded a second penalty, if not for the handball by Curtis Nelson then for a foul by Will Vaulks as he attempted to fire goalwards.

Fulham did earn more breathing space midway through the second period when a gorgeously disguised pass from Johansen allowed Onomah, who is really growing in stature after a difficult start to life at the Cottage, to thump home a resounding finish into the bottom corner from the edge of the box. It might have been three shortly afterwards but Christie’s heading ability when he was found by a Bryan free-kick didn’t match his long-range shooting that brought a goal at QPR recently.

To their great credit, Cardiff didn’t stop throwing men forward in search of a late lifeline, but Fulham defended Vaulks’ long-throws and a succession of carelessly conceded free-kicks pretty well. There were half chances for substitutes Robert Glatzel and Danny Ward before Tim Ream was fortunate to escape conceding a penalty when he pulled back the latter as he tried to reach a high ball in stoppage time. At the other end, Neeskens Kebano squandered a glorious opportunity to add to Fulham’s margin of victory when he sent a free header straight at Smithies from Ivan Cavaleiro’s cross. The Portuguese winger wasn’t exactly in Mitrovic’s good books after refusing to square a late cross for him in favour of trying to surprise the former QPR goalkeeper at his near post – but such was Fulham’s command of the contest by this point it would prove merely academic.

FULHAM (4-3-3): Rodak; Christie, Bryan, Hector, Ream; Reed (S. Sessegnon 84), Arter (Johansen 60), Onomah (McDonald 84); Knockaert (Cavaleiro 78), Decordova-Reid (Kebano 78); Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Odoi, Mawson, Le Marchand.

BOOKED: Knockaert, Hector, Christie.

GOALS: Mitrovic (pen 35), Onomah (66).

CARDIFF CITY (4-2-3-1): Smithies; Sanderson (Tomlin 45), Bennett, Morrison, Nelson; Bacuna, Vaulks; Hoilett (Ward 73), Mendez-Laing (Murphy 87), Ralls; Paterson (Glatzel 67). Subs (not used): Etheridge, Flint, Bamba, B. Smith, Pack.

BOOKED: Ralls.

REFEREE: Gavin Ward (Surrey).