A brilliant individual goal from Iliman Ndiaye and diligent defending saw Sheffield United end Fulham’s eleven match unbeaten run and claim a first league victory at Craven Cottage since 1985. Marco Silva’s side were rocked by Ndiaye’s superb strike in the third minute when he dribbled fifty yards to turn a home corner into the game’s decisive moment, punishing the home defence for backing off him with a precise finish past Marek Rodak from 23 yards. It took Fulham 75 minutes to force a save from Wes Foderingham and had they equalised in stoppage time when Aleksandar Mitrovic rattled the woodwork – and Harry Wilson somehow sent the rebound over – it would have been harsh on Paul Heckingbottom’s resilient side.
This was supposed to be the night when Fulham welcomed back one of their old heroes, but the Blades had sacked Slavisa Jokanovic following a slow start to the season. The Serbian had masterminded Fulham’s first climb from the Championship back to the top flight so the warmest appreciation was reserved for Ollie Norwood, a part of that play-off winning side from 2018, who turned in a composed display at the heart of United’s midfield. The former Fulham man had a bit part in the goal, hammering a clearance away from his own penalty area before Ndiaye surged away from Jean Michael Seri and took advantage of hesistancy from Tim Ream and Tosin Adarabioyo to place a finish past Rodak after advancing into shooting territory.
Heckingbottom, handed a four-year contract last month with a brief to make the most of the Blades’ brightest young talent, devised the perfect gameplan for nullifying the league leaders. Fulham had been faltering before this fixture – with a run of four underwhelming draws having hinted at a drop in standards – but they had no answer to the visitors’ subtle switch of system that saw Ndiaye paired with Billy Sharp up front. The two strikers pressed relentlessly from the front and Morgan Gibbs-White, enjoying a excellent loan spell from Wolves, drifted in dangerous pockets of space before he was forced off injured at half time.
Fulham were alarmingly flat for much of a contest that seemed to pass their key players by. Mitrovic missed the clearest chance of the first period, dragging a shot wide after he had raced onto a raking ball from Kenny Tete, but Silva’s side lacked penetration or urgency. The Serbian striker had just two touches in the penalty area throughout a first half where Fulham had more than two-thirds of possession. Their wingers were anonymous and teenage talent Fabio Carvalho was substituted shortly after half time as he struggled to make any impression on proceedings.
Indeed, the home side’s frustrating even was summed up by the way Wilson weaved his way into the penalty area having cut in from the right flank and lost his footing as he beat Jaden Bogle and lined up a shot. Kebano saw a shot scrambled off the line by Jack Robinson after Adarabioyo had headed a free-kick back across goal, but former Fulham academy graduate Wes Foderingham had a far easier return to Craven Cottage than he might have envisaged. He was booked just before the break for delaying the taking of a goal kick but the Blades certainly hadn’t come to put men behind the ball.
Norwood almost capitalised on a weak punch from Rodak right at the end of the first half and the Blades continued to pose serious problems on the break. Substitute Sander Berge’s lovely pass gave Jaden Bogle a sight of goal but the wing back’s decision to take another touch instead of shooting allowed Kenny Tete to slide in and avert the danger. Sharp thought he had scored a clinching second, but his celebrations were cut short by an offside flag after he had fired Ndiaye’s cut back high into the net. Fulham continued to the enjoy the majority of the ball, with Tom Cairney having come on for Seri at half time, but struggled to find space between the away side’s three centre backs.
The hosts threatened a grandstand finish with fifteen minutes left. Mitrovic cracked a low shot straight at Foderingham after Reed had headed on a poor clearance but neither the Serbian, who had earlier headed over a floated Kebano cross, or Rodrigo Muniz – sent on in place of the below par Antonee Robinson – unduly worried an assured Blades back line. Heckingbottom’s heroes managed proceedings pretty well before they had a huge slice of slick in the first minute of added time. Mitrovic dribbled his way past a succession of green shirts before lifting a shot against the frame of the goal on the search and Wilson volleyed wastefully over when it seemed simpler to convert the follow-up.
A stupefied Silva threw his hands skywards – knowing that Fulham had fluffed another glorious opportunity to extend their advantage at the top of the Championship to five points. The glorious unpredictability of England’s second tier had struck again. Far from being invincible, Fulham suddenly look fragile. It is Sheffield United who are upwardly mobile at present: a fourth consecutive victory puts the Blades only three points off the play-off positions.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Rodak; Tete, A. Robinson (Muniz 69), Adarabioyo, Ream; Reed, Seri (Cairney 45); Wilson, Kebano, Carvalho (Decordova-Reid 61); Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Gazzaniga, Odoi, Bryan, Chalobah.
SHEFFIELD UNITED (3-4-1-2): Foderingham; J. Robinson, Basham, Egan; Bogle, Stevens, Norwood, Hourihane (Fleck 76); Gibbs-White (Berge 45); Ndiaye (Osborn 78), Sharp. Subs (not used): Eastwood, Baldock, Freeman, Burke.
BOOKED: Foderingham, J. Robinson, Bogle.
GOAL: Ndiaye (3).
REFEREE: James Linington (Newport).