Alphonse Areola produced a string of fine saves to ensure Fulham left the south coast with a point after relegation rivals Brighton and Hove Albion had dominated most of this crunch clash at the bottom of the table, although an inspired goal-line clearance from Lewis Dunk prevented Ruben Loftus-Cheek from stealing the points right at the death.
Scott Parker had refused to characterised either this or Saturday’s trip to West Bromwich Albion as a must-win match beforehand, arguing that there were still plenty of chances to pick up points in the second half of the season. The longer this cagey contest remained scoreless it seemed not only like a single goal would settle it, but that moment would prove pivotal in the context of both sides’ campaigns. Brighton looked the likelier as the game crept towards a conclusion but French goalkeeper Areola punched away countless corners with authority and made excellent stops from Lewis Dunk, Leandro Trossard and Neal Maupay to keep a clean sheet.
Fulham began brightly, moving the ball at a high tempo and looking to pass their way around Brighton’s back three. Ola Aina wound up a repeat of his West Brom wondergoal from a lot further out, but this rising effort whistled over the crossbar. The Whites had more than two-thirds of the ball in the first quarter of an hour, but Graham Potter’s side gradually found their feet as Fulham’s passing became more frantic – presenting Albion with a couple of good openings in quick succession. Maupay surged away down the right after Tosin Adarabioyo had missed an interception and cut a smart ball back for Trossard, who – in acres of space – should have done better than shoot straight at Areola’s legs. Less than ninety seconds later, Aina coughed up possession and Andersen blocked another Trossard effort before Maupay fired into Areola’s arms after Brighton had won the ball back high up the pitch.
Fulham, seemingly unbalanced by Parker’s decision to choose Bobby Decordova-Reid at left wing-back rather than Joe Bryan in the absence of Antonee Robinson, flickered into life before the break – operating mostly on the counter-attack. They put together a crossfield move after Andre Frank Zambo Anguissa had powered through the centre and Kenny Tete’s floated cross was headed wide at the back post by Decordova-Reid. Then, Lofus-Cheek pinched possession from Lewis Dunk on the halfway line, freeing Ivan Cavaleiro but the Portuguese forward’s finish lacked the conviction of his purposeful run and went wide.
The visitors had a couple of half-chances after the interval too. Tete’s hopeful cross was only partially cleared and Decordova-Reid fired over from beyond the far post when he had more time to compose himself. Lookman found some space were there didn’t appear to be any, darting between Brighton defenders to carve out a chance for Cavaleiro, whose improvised toepoke trickled through to Sanchez.
Brighton upped the tempo and for twenty minutes it seemed like Fulham couldn’t live with them. Maupay squandered a golden opportunity when played through by a quick free-kick from Alexis Mac Allister but blazed over the bar after Fulham had switched off. The hosts then worked space on the right, the overlapping Joel Veltman’s low cross was begging to be turned in by Maupay but Areola made a magnificent reaction stop from the former Brentford man. Just as it looked like Solly March was about to turn home the rebound, Aina appeared to divert that effort over the bar.
The Fulham goal was leading a charmed life – and on the balance of play Brighton probably deserved a winner. Parker eventually introduced Aleksandar Mitrovic with twelve minutes to play and the Serbian almost had an immediate impact, his glancing header from Lookman’s left-wing cross gathered by Sanchez. The big chance arrived in the second minute of stoppage time when Bryan got to the by-line and fired in a low cross that found its way to Loftus-Cheek at the far post. Sanchez rushed off his line and the Chelsea loanee’s low shot beat the goalkeeper, but was scrambled away by Dunk, who had the presence of mind to retreat towards his own goal.
How useful a point is in Fulham’s predicament – five points from safety still with a game in hand – will doubtless be the subject of fierce debate. Parker’s pragmatism won out over a more gung-ho approach that could have forced the issue earlier, particularly in respect of adventurous substitutions, and the Whites will head to the Hawthorns at the weekend in search of an elusive win.
BRIGHTON AND HOVE ALBION (3-4-2-1): Sanchez; Webster, Dunk, White; Veltman, March, Bissouma, Gross; Trossard, Mac Allister (Propper 83); Maupay. Subs (not used): Walton, Burn, Moder, Alzate, Lallana, Connolly, Tau, Zeqiri.
BOOKED: Bissouma, Mac Allister.
FULHAM (3-4-3): Areola; Aina, Andersen, Adarabioyo; Tete (Bryan 79), Decordova-Reid, Reed (Lemina 66), Anguissa; Lookman, Loftus-Cheek, Cavaleiro (Mitrovic 78). Subs (not used): Rodak, Hector, Ream, Onomah, Kebano, Kamara.
REFEREE: Craig Pawson (South Yorkshire).
VIDEO ASSISTANT REFEREE: Andre Marriner (West Midlands).