An outrageous individual goal from Josh Onomah and another free-kick from Neeskens Kebano carved out a commanding cushion for Fulham to take to Craven Cottage on Thursday as Scott Parker’s side seized control of their Championship play-off final by beating Cardiff tonight.
The Londoners were largely nullified in a first half where the clearest chances fell to Cardiff, but Fulham underlined their promotion credentials with an improved display after the break – playing on the front foot, at a higher tempo and looking threatening in the final third. That two terrific goals were allied with another miserly defensive display leaves the Whites in pole position ahead of the second leg when they will hope that talisman Aleksandar Mitrovic, omitted as a precaution this evening, will be available to lead the line.
The enormity of the play-offs created a nervy affair and it was Cardiff who settled quickest. The Bluebirds first sight of goal came through a powerful drive from just outside the box by Leandro Bacuna, which surprised Marek Rodak, who could only palm the ball clear. Robert Glatzel looked favourite to roll home the rebound from close range, but Michael Hector produced a wonderful piece of defending, diving in to beat Glatzel and hook the ball clear from underneath his own crossbar. The German striker should have opened the scoring moments later when a clever turn and pass from Junior Hoilett left him free in the centre of the goal ten yards out, but his shot was straight at Rodak.
There was even time for Glatzel to spurn a third opening inside the first half hour, shooting straight at Rodak once more after Marlon Pack had prized open the Fulham defence with a lovely little reverse pass. Cardiff were sharper in possession and showing more movement in the final third than Fulham who, despite dominating the ball, struggled to break down Neil Harris’ well-drilled defence. Fulham’s first serious opening came when the lively Onomah ghosted onto Kebano’s lofted cross, but Alex Smithies dashed off his line to block the shot. They nearly went in ahead at the break when Cyrus Christie surged down the right and teed up Tom Cairney, whose trademark curler from 25 yards grazed the outside of the post.
Some stern words from Parker seemed to inspire Fulham after the interval. They were far more assertive in their play and the goal that broke the deadlock was breathtaking in its brilliance. There was a touch of Argentinian flair from yesteryear about the way Onomah took it, spinning around Pack effortlessly, slaloming between the Cardiff backs a la Maradona and tucking away a nonchalant finish low at the near post as he gave Smithies the eyes. It brought to mind Ricky Villa’s magic at Wembley from all those years ago – and, given how Onomah has made a midfield place in this side his own after a slow start, there was no more fitting a scorer.
A narrow lead in a crucial game seems to be made for Parker’s streetwise side. Fulham have lost just six points from winning positions all season – and never seriously looked like sacrificing their advantage here. Harris sent on Danny Ward, Josh Murphy and Will Vaulks to try and prompt a home revival, but the greater danger came at the other end. Onomah nearly laid on a second for Bobby Decordova-Reid but the former Cardiff forward’s rising drive flashed fractionally over the bar. Cairney almost nicked a second when he dispossessed Pack but his eventual shot lacked conviction and was blocked.
Rather than protect their lead, Fulham sought a second. Parker introduced Aboubakar Kamara for the final ten minutes and the Whites always carried a threat. When Cairney was crudely blocked off by Sean Morrison in stoppage time, it presented Fulham with a promising free-kick just outside the box in a central position. The Fulham skipper could have taken it himself, but played decoy for Kebano, who curled a majestic effort into the top corner. It was the Congolese winger’s third free-kick in as many games and topped off a perfect night in south Wales for the Cottagers.
CARDIFF CITY (4-2-3-1): Smithies; Bacuna, Bennett, Morrison, Nelson; Pack, Ralls; Mendez-Laing (Murphy 70), Hoilett (Vaulks 70); Glatzel (Ward 70). Subs (not used): Etheridge, Sanderson, Paterson, Bamba, Flint, B. Smith.
BOOKED: Hoilett, Bacuna.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Rodak; Christie, Bryan, Hector, Ream; Reed, Onomah, Cairney; Knockaert (Kamara 81), Kebano (Odoi 90), Decordova-Reid. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Mawson, Le Marchand, S. Sessegnon, Johansen, Jasper.
GOALS: Onomah (49), Kebano (90).
REFEREE: Geoff Eltringham (County Durham).