This was a very encouraging evening for Marco Silva. Fulham’s priority is an immediate return to the Premier League – and the prospect of a meeting with fellow Championship pacesetters Stoke City prompted eleven changes – but an experimental side had more than enough to see off battling Birmingham City tonight and secure a place in the third round of the League Cup. Jay Stansfield marked his first senior start by opening his Fulham account with a superb strike into the top corner and substitute Antonee Robinson sealed matters with his first goal for the club deep into stoppage time.
Silva’s side looked a little scruffy in comparison to the one that has been so fluent in the league in the early weeks of the season. That was not surprising given that several of the starting eleven were making their first appearances of the campaign. There was a quietly effective debut for Kosovan midfielder Adrion Pajaziti, who coped admirably with the physicality in the engine room, but it took a while for the visitors’ precise passing and movement to tell.
Blues made the early running and had the better of the early chances. Lee Bowyer had made ten changes from the 5-0 thumping of Luton on Saturday, recalling former Fulham goalkeeper Neil Etheridge after the Philippines international’s horrible battle with coronavirus. One-time Fulham loanee Jordan Graham looked like the home side’s most likely source of an opener, which should have arrived after a quarter of an hour when he whipped in a devilish cross from the right that Australian midfielder Riley McGree somehow spooned over Marek Rodak’s crossbar from close range.
Stansfield had shown great tenacity in his battle with Birmingham’s three centre backs and plenty of clever touches to keep the ball in the final third, but hadn’t had much of an opportunity to go for goal himself until he seized on a loose clearance after Joe Bryan had buzzed along the left flank. The eighteen year old carried the ball deep into Blues’ territory and then crashed an unstoppable right-footed shot into the top corner from just outside the area. It was a sensational strike – in keeping with Stansfield’s prodigious talent.
Birmingham did threaten an immediate riposte when Ivan Sunjic let fly from outside the box but his left-footed effort didn’t unduly concern Rodak. Fulham finished the first period in the ascendancy and should have doubled their advantage when Kebano tricked his way past debutant Dion Sanderson and cut the ball back for Bobby Decordova-Reid, but the utility man skied his shot horribly over. The visitors carried a threat deep into added time as evidenced by the fact that Bryan’s brilliant cross flashed just out of reach of Decordova-Reid in the last action of the half.
Blues were desperate to come flying out of the blocks after the break but had nothing to show for their early intent with a couple of offside flags derailing promising attacks. Fulham’s patient passing was now beginning to give them more of a foothold in the contest – the most impressive period saw the Whites kept the ball for nearly thirty passes before Stansfield was adjudged offside as he chased down an Alfie Mawson through ball. Decordova-Reid might have made proceedings more comfortable but shot wide again after more impressive wing play from Kebano.
Lee Bowyer sent on Charlie Lakin and Keyendrah Simmonds just after the hour but the closest the pair came to influencing proceedings was when the former struck the frame of the goal after being released by a lovely disguised pass from McGree – but the offside flag had already gone up. Kebano continued an energetic stint down the left flank, darting inside and firing a fierce drive goalwards which Etheridge did well to push over his crossbar.
Ivan Cavaleiro replaced the Congolese winger but spurned a great chance to wrap things up shortly after coming on, lashing a finish wastefully into the side netting with Anthony Knockaert begging for the ball to played square. Stansfield, who had worked tirelessly as a lone front man, was withdrawn after going down with cramp and his replacement – Robinson – settled the tie in the third minute of stoppage time. The killer second goal appeared elusive after Decordova-Reid had rattled the base of the post after a fine run across the box, but Robinson stroked in his first Fulham goal after coolly collecting a cutback from Cavaleiro.
BIRMINGHAM CITY (3-4-3): Etheridge; Sanderson (Chang 75), Friend, Mitchell Roberts; Oakley, Sunjic (Lakin 63), McGree, Castillo; Graham, Leko, Aneke (Simmonds 63). Subs (not used): Trueman, Bellingham, Walker.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Rodak; Odoi, Bryan, Mawson, Hector; Francois, Pajaziti; Kebano (Cavaleiro 72), Knockaert, Decordova-Reid (Onomah 90+3); Stansfield (Robinson 85). Subs (not used): Gazzaniga, Adarabioyo, Robinson, Seri, Onomah, Mitrovic.
BOOKED: Bryan, Hector.
GOALS: Stansfield (26), Robinson (90+3).
REFEREE: Samuel Barrott (West Riding).