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Aleksandar Mitrovic grabbed his third hat-trick of the season as Fulham returned to the top of the Championship by putting six past Bristol City. But it was far from a routine victory for Marco Silva’s side at Craven Cottage as Antoine Semenyo twice punished poor defending to put the visitors ahead and Fulham were forced to show real resolve before their enterprising football eventually overwhelmed Nigel Pearson’s men. Serbian striker Mitrovic, who overtook Ronnie Rooke to draw level with Bobby Robson in Fulham’s list of leading goalscorers with a first half treble, was unplayable, whilst Fabio Carvalho scored a stunning individual effort and Neeskens Kebano rounded off the scoring with a brace.

It looked for a while as though the Whites might better the magnificent seven they managed at Reading in midweek – but the margin of victory was still commanding at the end of a much more sedate second half. Fulham overcame the shock of two terrific strikes from local boy Semenyo, restored to the starting line-up in place of Chris Martin, with Tom Cairney – badly embarrassed as the young striker opening the scoring – pulling the strings deliciously from deep in midfield. Mitrovic bullied poor Zak Vyner in the first period before completing his hat-trick with an emphatic header in stoppage time that pretty much put an absorbing contest beyond City.

Pearson’s side certainly didn’t come to the capital to shut up shop. They had taken great heart from their creditable showing in the FA Cup last weekend, where they were unfortunate to be edged out by Harry Wilson’s extra-time fluke. Whilst the 3-4-1-2 system was the same, there were changes in personnel. Jay DaSilva operated as a right wing back with Callum O’Dowda on the left, allowing Alex Scott to play in the hole between Semenyo and top scorer Andi Weimann. It took just seven minutes for Pearson’s tinkering to pay off as the visitors scored a classic counter-attacking goal.

Max O’Leary, so impressive between the sticks at Ashton Gate, claimed a Fulham goal with a modicum of fuss and bowled it out for Scott, whose precise through ball put set Semenyo running at a short-handed home defence. Cairney found himself in the right back position but was bamboozled by the forward’s clever feet as he tricked the Fulham skipper far too easily and lashed a shot high into the roof of the net between Marek Rodak and the near post. It was a fabulous finish, but there was plenty to critique about the passiveness of Fulham’s defending.

The hosts immediately went searching for a response, which Mitrovic probably should have provided when he flicked a free header over the bar unattended at the near post from Harrison Reed’s corner. Bristol City pressed frantically high up the field and made it difficult for Silva’s side to find their usual rhythm but Fulham’s first spell of prolonged passing preceded the equaliser. Reed swept the ball wide for Wilson, who took advantage of the space he was afforded on the right to whip in a dangerous cross that Mitrovic emphatically headed into the far corner. That was his 25th of the campaign and he made it look effortless after shrugging off Vyner.

Kebano then spun superbly on the edge of the area to work some space for a shot but the Congolese winger’s effort was a little too close to O’Leary. The Bristol City goalkeeper then stretched to tip over a Mitrovic header after a miscued Wilson volley bounced up into the six-yard box and it seemed like the home side were turning the screw. Mitrovic lined up another shot but his venomous effort cannoned off Andy King and reached Semenyo on the halfway line. The striker spun away from Ream far too easily and accelerated away from Reed before rifling a low shot past Rodak and in off the far post. Another extraordinary individual strike that put Fulham’s plan to reach the Championship summit in jeopardy.

Silva’s side had yet to win a game from a losing position and had only picked up a single point – against Bournemouth in their last outing here – whilst behind all season. But they responded almost straight away, with Cairney snapping into a fifty-fifty to reclaim possession and keep Kenny Tete galloping down the right flank. Mitrovic headed the Dutchman’s deep delivery back across goal and there was Kebano to nudge home from a few yards out. Parity had been restored, but that wasn’t enough for the home side.

Carvalho, coming off a couple of quiet games following his return from injury, demonstrated all of his precocious talent as he put the Whites in front for the first time five minutes later. The teenager took a pass from Ream and run at the heart of the Bristol City defence, breezing away from King and drawing in Vyner before measuring a fabulous finish into the far corner beyond O’Leary’s despairing dive. It was a goal of exquisite quality befitting a breathless first half.

The excitement was far from over. Fulham survived a scare when Dasilva intercepted a poor ball out from the break and slipped in Weimann, who was denied by a smart save from Rodak. The ball rebounded back to DaSilva who advanced a couple of yards before going to ground under a challenge from Reed, but referee Tim Robinson waved away the penalty appeals. The visitors paid the penalty as Fulham went straight down the other end and won a corner from which Mitrovic rose majestically to head Cairney’s cross into the far corner.

It was five in the first minute of stoppage time. The same pair were involved again. Cairney stripped Massengo of possession after he tried to work a one-two and strode forward before threading a lovely pass through to Mitrovic, who switched the ball onto his left foot and found the top corner with a glorious finish from fifteen yards. After all that end-to-end action, it was almost inevitable that the second half would be subdued by comparison.

Mitrovic headed over from a Kebano cross and Fulham played patient, probing football before scoring a sixth just before the hour mark. Reed’s floated free-kick was aimed towards Adarabioyo, whose looping header into the six yard box left Kebano with plenty to do. The in-form winger produced a mesmorising bit of control and, after swivelling in the blink of an eye, made light of an acute angle by firing into the roof of the net. He should have had a hat-trick minutes later but contrived to completely miss the target with a volley with only O’Leary to beat.

Wilson almost crowned another lively afternoon of wizardry on the other wing with a curler from just inside the box that just cleared the crossbar. City, whose ambitious approach more than contributed to a compelling spectacle, had chances of their own throughout the second period. King volleyed wide from the edge of area after a Rodak punch, substitute Rob Atkinson headed narrowly over and Weimann was thwarted by Rodak again. But Fulham were on easy street after running riot towards the end of the first half. Following Bournemouth’s last-gasp defeat at Luton, Silva’s side had seized top spot from Scott Parker’s grasp – and sent out another statement of intent.

FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Rodak; Tete, A. Robinson, Adarabioyo, Ream; Reed, Cairney (Chalobah 72); Wilson, Kebano (Decordova-Reid 72), Carvalho; Mitrovic (Muniz 78). Subs (not used): Gazzaniga, Odoi, Hector, Stansfield.

GOALS: Mitrovic (21, 41, 45+1), Kebano (31, 57), Carvalho (36).

BRISTOL CITY (3-4-1-2): O’Leary; Vyner, Kalas, Pring; Da Silva (Atkinson 50), O’Dowda (Bakinson 76), Massengo (Martin 50), King; Scott; Semenyo, Weimann. Subs (not used): Bentley, Benarous, Palmer, Wells.

BOOKED: Pring, Scott.

GOALS: Semenyo (7, 29).

REFEREE: Tim Robinson (West Sussex).

ATTENDANCE: 17,810.