Marco Silva wanted a reaction after Fulham’s meek capitulation at Blackpool on Saturday – and his side delivered in the Midlands this evening. St. Andrew’s might not be as intimidating as usual, owing to botched stadium repairs and ownership issues, but Lee Bowyer’s side are certainly no pushover on the pitch. Blues sat just outside the play-off places at kick off and asked plenty of questions in an even first half, but Fulham proved clinical on the counter attack and ruthlessly took their chances to head back to the top of the Championship.
Silva’s belated embrace of one of the division’s strongest squads saw four changes from the Bloomfield Road debacle. Joe Bryan made his first start of the season at left back, whilst Nathaniel Chalobah and Harrison Reed lined up alongside Jean-Michael Seri to make a central midfield three with Harry Wilson returning on his right wing after overcoming the dizzy spells that prompted an early end to his international duty. The Welsh winger has been a revelation since signing from Liverpool in the summer and might have scored twice before half-time. He made amends by whipping in a devilish corner that Denis Odoi glanced gloriously into the far corner after rising majestically at the near post, with Chalobah blocking off Jeremie Bela effectively.
Chalobah had an excellent debut in the heart of the midfield, driving forward with purpose when space opened up in front of him. He produced an outrageous turn to accelerate into space inside the Birmingham box just before the break, with Harlee Dean reduced to hauling the England international down in desperation. Aleksandar Mitrovic made no mistake from the spot, drilling his penalty low into the bottom corner to double Fulham’s lead. That might have been harsh on the home side, who attacked with energy, but struggled to create clear chances. Tosin Adarabioyo had a terrific first half, making twelve clearances on his own. Bela extended Gazzaniga with a 25-yard free kick and, after the goalkeeper had galloped outside of his area, Lukas Jutkiewicz fired wide.
But Fulham might have been further in front after Wilson spurned a couple of good chances before the break and then was denied a free-kick on the edge of the box after clearly being clipped by Marc Roberts having latched onto a terrific kick from Gazzaniga. The Welshman, such a pivotal figure in Silva’s side in the early weeks of his reign, was denied by Matija Sarkic after a one-two with Joe Bryan and the goalkeeper easily gathered an effort off his weaker foot after Reed’s rampaging right down the right allowed Mitrovic to tee him up.
Wilson did get his goal ten minutes after the interval and it came courtesy of the kind of classical counter-attack that this side is set up for. Chalobah threaded a glorious pass through the retreating Birmingham defence to release Wilson down the right and, having run from the halfway line, the winger slotted an assured finish past Sarkic. Birmingham didn’t fold and responded with their best spell of the game – Gazzaniga saving smartly from Jutkiewicz and substitute Troy Deeney in quick succession before Harlee Dean headed over from a corner.
There was a worrying moment midway through the second period when Reed limped off after going down in the Fulham penalty area and his exit temporarily loosened the visitors’ foothold in midfield. Gazzaniga was called upon to claw away a trademark Jutkiewicz header and then used his feet to deny Deeney a first goal for his boyhood club after a free-kick dropped invitingly for the former Watford forward five yards out.
Wilson was withdrawn – presumably with Fulham’s hectic autumn schedule in mind – but Mitrovic fashioned his second of the evening to emphasise just how dangerous the Whites can be in attack. The Serbian striker stole possession from Roberts on the halfway line and worked a one-two at pace with Seri before burying sixth of the season with a modicum of fuss. Fulham’s clean sheet was ruined when Deeney was brought down by a combination of Odoi and Domingos Quina and the veteran fired in emphatically from the spot. Denney was denied a second in stoppage time when Gazzaniga gathered his attempted chip, before Gary Gardner rattled the crossbar with a header, but the gulf in class had been clearly established long ago.
BIRMINGHAM CITY (3-4-1-2): Sarkic; Roberts, Dean, Pedersen, Colin, Bela (Gardner 60), Woods, Sunjic; Chong (Aneke 75); Jutkiewicz, Hogan (Deeney 53). Subs (not used): Trueman, Friend, Sanderson, McGree.
BOOKED: Bela, Chong.
GOAL: Deeney (pen 87).
FULHAM (4-3-3): Gazzaniga; Odoi, Bryan, Adarabioyo, Ream; Reed (Quina 65), Chalobah, Seri; Wilson (Mawson 78), Decordova-Reid (Cavaleiro 74), Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Rodak, Robinson, Kebano, Muniz.
GOALS: Odoi (10), Mitrovic (pen 44, 83), Wilson (54).
REFEREE: David Webb (Lancashire).