In this sort of mood, Aleksandar Mitrovic is unplayable. The imposing Serbian centre forward delivered a display of classical hold up play and penalty area ruthlessness to take this lunchtime’s west London derby decisively away from Queens Park Rangers, just when Mark Warburton’s men appeared poised to profit from further Fulham complacency. The Whites, who looked so formidable in August, had been punished for taking their foot off the gas at Coventry before the international break and, after substitute Lyndon Dykes had cancelled out Mitrovic’s thumping opener, more frustration seemed in store for Marco Silva’s side. But Mitrovic restored Fulham’s advantage with a superb header – and the hosts ended up romping away from their local rivals.
The number nine was critical to both of Fulham’s previous promotions from the Championship – providing the missing link for Slavisa Jokanovic’s side when joining on loan from Newcastle and becoming a regular source of goals under Scott Parker. His absence from Parker’s struggling team last season might have brought the curtain down on his Craven Cottage career but Silva’s return to English football and the adoption of an adventurous approach to an immediate return to the top flight has seen the side constructed around Mitrovic’s considerable talents. With Jean-Michael Seri imperious in the engine room and Tom Cairney fit enough to be named amongst the substitutes, things are looking up at London’s oldest professional football club.
Fulham made a bright start to what felt like a crucial derby, pinging passes through the midfield and penning Rangers back. Mitrovic opened the scoring after ten minutes with a goal that showcased all of his ability. Seri, who sparkled throughout from his deep-lying playmaker position, began a flowing move with a glorious switch of play out to Neeskens Kebano on the right. Denis Odoi galloped forward from full back and delivered a deep cross to the back post. Mitrovic held off Rob Dickie easily to bring the ball under spell and rifled a low drive between Seny Dieng and the near post.
The hosts might have had further goals before the break. Dieng did brilliantly to deny Mitrovic twice in quick succession from Harry Wilson’s corner, before Dickie denied the former Newcastle forward an almost certain second with a saving challenge after a superb run down the right flank from the Welsh winger. Rangers offered little as an attacking force, with Charlie Austin blazing over from the edge of the area, but can within a whisker of equalising just before the equaliser when Chris Willock clipped the outside of the far post after being brilliantly picked out by Moses Odubajo.
Fulham made a fast start to the second period, but Dieng did well to spread himself and deny Kebano after the winger had raced onto a lovely through ball from Harrison Reed and Rangers, who had more firepower up front after Dykes had replaced Dominic Ball during the interval, found an equaliser nine minutes after half time. Odoi criminally surrendered possession, giving Willock time and space to run at the Fulham defence and the former Arsenal midfielder threaded a through ball between the hosts’ retreating centre halves. Dykes darted around the stranded Marek Rodak and lifted in the equaliser that suddenly had the game in the balance.
Silva, who had already lost Ivan Cavaleiro to injury in the first half, was forced into another alteration in the aftermath of the goal as Joe Bryan had collided painfully with both the post and Tim Ream in a desperate attempt to block Dykes’ finish. Fulham had wilted alarmingly from a similar position at Coventry a fortnight ago, but Harrison Reed was determined to drag his team-mates forward. He clapped his hands and bellowed encouragement after the Rangers equaliser and took matters into his own hands shortly afterwards, surging into a shooting position some 35 yards from goal and his low shot was narrowly off target.
Antonee Robinson seized the opportunity to impress after replacing Bryan and raced down the left flank to add impetus to another Fulham attack. The American international released the ball intelligently for Kebano, who checked onto his right foot and floated a delicious ball for Mitrovic to attack. The Serbian cleverly manoeuvred Jordy de Wijs out of the way with his arm before brilliantly looping a header over Dieng and into the net via the far post. It took just four minutes for Fulham to find breathing space when a sumptuous pass from Seri released Bobby Decordova-Reid, whose accurate finish across Dieng made it three.
The Rangers goalkeeper saved well from Kebano, whose lively display down the left probably merited a goal of his own, but had no such luck in injury time when Robinson’s speculative strike from long range took a hefty deflection off de Wijs, leaving him completely stranded. Fulham’s strong finish looked unlikely after Dykes’ leveller, but was a welcome reward for a much-needed display of the sort of character necessary to tackle the unpredictability of the Championship.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Rodak; Odoi, Bryan (Robinson 58), Adarabioyo, Ream; Reed, Seri; Kebano, Cavaleiro (Decordova-Reid 32), Wilson (Chalobah 77); Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Gazzaniga, Mawson, Cairney, Muniz.
GOALS: Mitrovic (10, 67), Decordova-Reid (71), Robinson (90+1).
QUEENS PARK RANGERS (3-4-2-1): Dieng; Dickie, de Wijs, Barbet; Odubajo, McCallum (Dunne 66), Ball (Dykes 45), Johansen; Willock, Chair; Austin (Gray 69). Subs (not used): Archer, Amos, Adomah.
BOOKED: Ball, Johansen, Odubajo, Dunne.
GOAL: Dykes (54).
REFEREE: Oliver Langford (West Midlands).