Josh Bowler came back to haunt Fulham again this afternoon as the in-form winger secured a deserved point for battling Blackpool against the league leaders at Craven Cottage. The former Fulham academy prospect, who scored in Hull’s victory here two years ago and settled the reverse fixture at Bloomfield Road in September, steered in CJ Hamilton’s cross after a misplaced pass from Tosin Adarabioyo to cancel out Aleksandar Mitrovic’s early opener. It was Neil Critchley’s side who created the clearer chances to add a second and Fulham had to content with preserving their five point cushion at the top of the Championship after a frustrating afternoon.
Marco Silva’s men never really recovered their fluency following a 41-minute delay in the first half for a medical emergency when a supporter was taken gravely ill in the Hammersmith End. Thankfully, the fan responded positively to treatment from medical staff of both clubs and was able to communicate with paramedics as he was stretchered out of the stadium. It seems rather trite to discuss football following such a serious incident, but Fulham appeared flat after the break in sharp contrast to the opening five minutes where they had flown out of the traps.
Mitrovic, recalled along with Harry Wilson after the pair missed last weekend’s win at Stoke, almost got the hosts off to the perfect start when he strained to head in a Denis Odoi cross and Jordan Gabriel turned it behind. The Belgian veteran, in for the injured Kenny Tete, was a lively outlet down the right supplying a low cross to the near post that Fabio Carvalho flicked straight at Daniel Grimshaw. The Tangerines appeared horribly penned it and a goal was in the offing.
It arrived courtesy of some flowing Fulham football down the left flank. Neeskens Kebano burst away from two defenders and threaded a ball into the path of Carvalho, whose low cross from the edge of the six-yard box, gave Mitrovic a simple finish from close range. The Serbian striker took his scarcely credible goal tally to 28 – the first Fulham striker to reach that mark in the league since Bedford Jezzard in 1954 – and at that point it felt like Silva’s side might score another hatful. Wilson almost added a sumptuous second, taking down a forward ball from Adarabioyo brilliantly, and lifting a finish over the onrushing goalkeeper but fractionally wide.
Blackpool used the timely break to their advantage. They were much more adventurous, both in their pressing and their general approach, once play resumed and could easily have been back on level terms before half-time. Callum Connolly drew a sprawling save from Marek Rodak after Odoi had pulled back Hamilton just outside the box whilst the dangerous Bowler put together a couple of threatening runs from deep – with the latter culminating in a rising drive that clipped the top of the crossbar.
Fulham’s threat remained, but it was a little more sporadic. Grimshaw dealt comfortable with a speculative strike from distance by Harrison Reed, but had to be at his very best to thwart Wilson twice in quick succession when the Welsh winger burst onto a beautifully weighted through ball from Reed. The Blackpool goalkeeper then bravely blocked with his legs when Mitrovic drove goalwards after Tom Cairney’s innocuous looking header from distance came back off the near post as Fulham pressed for a second.
Carvalho took the attack to Blackpool early in the second half. He surged past three tacklers before swapping passes with Kebano and driving into the area only to see his measured finish clip the inside of the post and bounce away to safety after he had given Grimshaw the eyes. The visitors responded with a well-worked move of their own which saw Jordan Gabriel lash a drive goalwards from an acute angle, with Rodak needing to be alert to smuggle the shot behind.
Where Blackpool were now growing in confidence, Fulham had become sloppy. Both Odoi and Tim Ream had survived surrendering possession in dangerous areas, but when Adarabioyo erred in presenting the ball to Hamilton, the hosts weren’t so fortunate. He drove into the area and cut the ball back for Bowler, who raced onto it ahead of Joe Bryan and drove a shot through the legs of Reed and past Rodak’s outstretched arm to level. You can certainly see why he has been linked with a return to the Cottage as well as a number of the other promotion contenders.
Bryan then bravely blocked a rasping Connolly drive as the visitors went in search of a winner and Fulham rarely threatened for the remainder of the match, despite Silva sending out Rodrigo Muniz to join Mitrovic up front. Blackpool defended manfully as the home side switched to three at the back, with a powerful drive from Nathaniel Chalobah the closest Fulham came to breaching their defences. The Seasiders’ bid for all three points carried a bit more bite but substitute Shayne Lavery shot wide and Hamilton saw a near-post effort pushed aside by Rodak as Critchley’s boys had to settle for a point.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Rodak; Odoi (Knockaert 83), Bryan, Adarabioyo, Ream; Reed (Chalobah 73), Cairney; Wilson, Kebano (Muniz 73), Carvalho, Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Gazzaniga, Hector, Onomah, Cavaleiro.
BOOKED: Odoi, Mitrovic, Carvalho, Wilson.
GOAL: Mitrovic (6).
BLACKPOOL (5-4-1): Grimshaw; Gabriel, Sterling, Ekpiteta, Keogh, Thorniley; Dougall, Connolly, Hamilton, Bowler; Lavery (Yates 80). Subs (not used): Moore, Casey, Robson, Dale, Kirk, Madine.
BOOKED: Dougall, Gabriel.
GOAL: Bowler (57).
REFEREE: Peter Bankes (Merseyside).