Steve Morison was honest enough when asked in run-up to this game how his Cardiff side might stop Aleksandar Mitrovic. The interim Bluebirds boss admitted you were unlikely to shackle the Serbian and the best opponents would be able to do would be to cut off the supply line. Cardiff managed that for most of this afternoon in a dogged defensive display, but they were punished for a momentary lapse before half time. A set-piece special, devised on the Motspur Park training pitches, saw Fulham overload the right flank from a short corner and Mitrovic snuck away from Aiden Flint to head home Harry Wilson’s deep cross from an acute angle.
The Serbian’s 34th goal of a glorious campaign proved enough to secure Fulham’s first league double over Cardiff since 1996 – when both sides were languishing in the fourth tier. Marco Silva’s side have now responded to their hiccup against Huddersfield with a couple of hard-fought wins and, although the league leaders were far from their fluent best in south Wales, gutsy victories like this are what you need to win promotion from the Championship. A tenth clean sheet of the league campaign took the Whites eleven points clear of the third-placed Terriers with two games in hand.
Silva demonstrated the depth of resources at his disposal rotating after the midweek win over Peterborough. Joe Bryan made only his second league start of the calendar year at left back and nearly opened the scoring in the second minute, whilst Nathaniel Chalobah partnered Harrison Reed in central midfield – perhaps with the prospect of a bruising battle in mind. Harry Wilson slotted back in on the right flank and, for the majority of a first half that was short on offensive quality, his link-up play with fellow Welshman Neco Williams looked the most likely route to an opener.
It was Williams, always eager to get forward, whose cross provided the visitors’ first real sight of goal. The ball bounced back off Fabio Carvalho – a target for feisty tackles all afternoon – and fell kindly for Harry Wilson but Alex Smithies held his half volley comfortably. The former QPR goalkeeper turned defence into attack in an instant. His long kick out bounced over Tosin Adarabioyo and James Collins was in behind the Fulham back line but Marek Rodak made himself big and resisted the recalled forward’s attempted dink.
Rodak then easily fielded an effort from Alfie Doughty as the left wing-back cut inside but Cardiff’s brightest attacking moments came from the former Fulham academy graduate Cody Drameh, on loan from Leeds, on the opposite flank. Williams was doing his best to carry the attack to the hosts whipping in a decent delivery that Mitrovic nodded wide before the Serbian scrambled to turn off the corner but Flint got his body in the way.
The decisive moment arrived four minutes from the interval. Another cleverly worked corner routine saw Cardiff outnumbered as Fulham played it short between Reed, ex-Bluebird Bobby Decordova-Reid and Wilson. The latter lifted a lovely ball to the back post where Mitrovic headed across Smithies and into the far corner, having wandered all too easily away from his marker. It looked a simple goal – but Fulham’s plan was superbly executed.
Cardiff came out hunting an early equaliser. Collins did have the ball in the net, but was correctly ruled offside as he pounced on a mishit effort from Perry Ng. Rubin Colwill enjoyed a little bit of joy by dropping into the pockets of space behind Collins and forced Tim Ream into a rushed clearance, but the visitors gradually put together a few attacks of promise. Carvalho was at the heart of those, with one weaving run finishing with a cross that flashed across the six-yard box before Flint was very fortunate to survive concerted penalty appeals after handling Williams’ centre.
Decordova-Reid then saw a deft header from a free-kick well smothered by Smithies before Mitrovic went close to the killer second twice in quick succession. He saw a snapshot bravely blocked by Ng and lovely interplay with Carvalho and then headed a Decordova-Reid cross over the bar. Cardiff were far from being penned back in their own half, however, with the artistry of Manchester City loanee Tommy Doyle coming to the fore. The midfielder had Adarabioyo at full stretch in repelling a cross and then whistled a free-kick fractionally over the crossbar from 25 yards out.
Two of Morison’s substitutes almost combined to level matters with a quarter of an hour left. Ryan Wintle, so impressive in Blackpool colours earlier in the season, floated a lovely ball to the back post where Joel Bagan crept ahead of Williams but headed into the side netting. Silva sent on Josh Onomah and Kenny Tete in an attempt to shore things up but the hosts kept pushing. Ream bravely headed away a couple of corners in added time at the near post, suffering a head injury that saw him off the field, for another which reached Flint, who couldn’t keep his rising drive down.
A tight contest, lenient refereed by Leigh Doughty, threatened to boil over in the final minute of stoppage time when Ivan Cavaleiro appeared to have been caught by an elbow from Ng as he led the chase from the front. Tempers briefly frayed – including on the touchline – but the visitors clung on to eek out another important away win.
CARDIFF CITY (3-5-1-1): Smithies; Ng, Flint, McGuinness; Drameh, Doughty (Bagan 67), Vaulks (Wintle 76), Ralls, Doyle; Colwill (Davies 59); Collins. Subs (not used): Phillips, Bagan, King, Denham, Hugill.
BOOKED: Vaulks, Ralls.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Rodak; Williams (Tete 79), Bryan, Adarabioyo, Ream; Chalobah, Reed (Onomah 75); Wilson, Decordova-Reid (Cavaleiro 85), Carvalho, Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Gazzaniga, Tete, Hector, Seri, Muniz.
GOAL: Mitrovic (41).
REFEREE: Leigh Doughty (Lancashire).