The sight of crestfallen Fulham players in tears after the final whistle told you everything. Scott Parker’s side had already blown two opportunities to move above Newcastle and out of the Premier League drop zone – and they couldn’t afford to squander another survival lifeline. There was no lack of effort but, following Sunday’s late collapse at Villa Park, the concession of Adama Traore’s stoppage-time winner – which flew past a culpable Alphonse Areola at his near post – felt like the hammer blow that will send Fulham tumbling out of the top flight.
The goal was even more devastating as it came immediately after the Whites spurned a glorious chance to grab a winner themselves. Kenny Tete had been felled by substitute Fabio Silva and Ivan Cavaleiro stood over a free-kick wide on the road, with the angle to whip an inviting ball for an assembled cast inside the Wolves penalty area. Instead, he found Rui Patricio’s gloves with a woeful delivery. A minute later and the ball was in the Fulham net. Referee Jon Moss deserves immense credit for playing advantage when Morgan Gibbs-White was clearly taken out in the middle of the field forty yards from goal, allowing Traore to surge down the right flank and fire into the roof of the net from an impossibly acute angle, badly wrongfooting Areola.
There was still time for Fulham, who had toiled manfully throughout without ever looking like breaking the deadlock, to fashion one last half chance when Josh Maja miscued a volley from ten yards out down into the turf and up into the grateful arms of Patricio with the game’s last kick. Fulham might only be three points behind Newcastle but they have played two games move than the Magpies and Steve Bruce’s side can put further distance between themselves and the relegation zone by beating Burnley on Sunday. Parker’s next two assignments, trips to Arsenal and Chelsea, would be tough under the best of circumstances – but you fancy Fulham need a miracle bigger than the one Roy Hodgson pulled off in 2008 now.
This scrappy and tense affair was not an alluring advert for the English top flight. Two sides badly out of form largely cancelled each other out and the first half was a turgid watch, coming to life only with its last gasp when Wolves were ludicrously denied the opening goal by the video assistant referee. With the half’s only serious moment of quality, Daniel Podence produced a fine cross that Willian Jose emphatically headed past Areola – only for the subsequent analysis to suggest that the winger’s arm might have been marginally offside. It wasn’t the clear and obvious howler that the technology has been brought in to correct – and it was a mighty let off for Fulham.
Parker’s side, which included Terence Kongolo making a first league start for seventeen months after Tosin Adarabioyo harshly paid the penalty for his mistake in the Midlands on Easter Sunday, had huffed and puffed without creating a great deal. Antonee Robinson represented Fulham’s most potent threat with his raids down the left often prompted by Joachim Andersen’s exquisite crossfield passes. The American’s two best crosses provided the hosts’ only serious openings – Ruben Loftus-Cheek criminally failing to find the target with his head from ten yards and Aleksandar Mitrovic looping a header just wide from further out just before the break.
Fulham began with more adventure after the interval, but Mitrovic was frequently left completely isolated up against Wolves’ well-drilled three centre backs. Mario Lemina almost teased an opening for Kenny Tete at the back post before Patricio snaffled a tame Mitrovic header at his near post and, although Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa added both industry and intensity from the bench, the Whites lacked a telling final ball to match their desire as they pressed for an opener. The clearer chances probably came at the other end, with Romain Saïss wasting a free-kick just outside the area and Leander Dendoncker spurning two headed chances.
Parker’s side roused themselves in a lively closing spell where they raised the tempo. Maja saw his close-range header diverted wide by Ruben Neves after Anguissa had created half a yard of space outside the box and an improvised effort from his right foot by Robinson briefly had Patricio scurrying across his goalline. In the story of Fulham’s infuriating campaign, the home side were punished for their failure to make the most of their best spell of the game in its dying embers. Teenage striker Fabio Silva, who has shown flickers of his dazzling potential so far since his summer move from Porto, injected energy into Wolves’ late break when he sent Traore blazing down the right with a lovely pass after Gibbs-White had been cynically felled and the rapid Spaniard broke Fulham’s hearts with a powerful drive that took Areola by surprise and ended his own fifteenth month Premier League scoring drought.
Parker has arguably already pulled off a heroic feet in making a Fulham side who looked nothing more than top flight cannon fodder in the early weeks of the season competitive in this division – but the Whites have lacked the ruthlessness to be able to capitalise on their improved run of form around the turn of the year. It seems as though salvation will be beyond them unless this crazy season serves up the most unscriptable of finales.
FULHAM (3-4-3): Areola; Aina (Cavaleiro 84), Andersen, Kongolo; Tete, Robinson, Reed (Maja 73), Lemina; Loftus-Cheek (Anguissa 63), Decordova-Reid, Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Fabri, Hector, Ream, Adarabioyo, Bryan, Onomah.
WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS (4-2-3-1): Patricio; Semedo, Aït-Nouri, Coady, Saïss; Dendoncker, Neves; Neto (Moutinho 33), Traore, Podence (Gibbs-White 74); Jose (Silva 78). Subs (not used): Ruddy, Hoever, Kilman, Richards, Otasowie, Vintinha.
GOAL: Traore (90+3).
REFEREE: Jon Moss (West Yorkshire).
VIDEO ASSISTANT REFEREE: David Coote (Nottinghamshire).