It was by no means a vintage performance last night, but the Fulham juggernaut keeps rolling on. Millwall deserve credit for making it difficult for the league leaders in both halves: firstly by stopping Fulham’s fluent passing at source and, then, in the second half for rolling their sleeves up at having a good go at getting back into a contest that looked beyond them. Were it not for a couple of sharp saves from Marek Rodak, Gary Rowett’s side would have made a real game of it. As Bobby Decordova-Reid said afterwards, it seemed as though the Whites had another gear to go into – and the hallmark of successful sides is that they grind out results when below their best.
It was a night that stirred the emotions as well as Craven Cottage paid tribute to Paul Parish. The Fulham fan’s sad passing after our last home match against Blackpool was a reminder that, as opposed to that famous Bill Shankly quote, the beautiful game isn’t the be all and end all. The ground once as one in the eleventh minute to salute his memory and, in a touching moment after the final whistle, the Fulham players and backroom staff visited the Parish family at the front of the Hammersmith End to pay their respects. We often talk about Fulham being a family club – and that is why.
Aleksandar Mitrovic will hog the headlines again after another brace took him to thirty goals for the season in early February: a simply astonishing feat, but arguably the most pleasing element of Fulham’s third consecutive London derby win – the first time they have enjoyed such dominance in the capital since 2013 – was the fact that Marco Silva’s side kept a clean sheet. Rodak has come in for criticism in recent weeks but you couldn’t fault his performance here. He got a big crucial hand on an early cross from Ollie Burke as Millwall began brightly, but the Slovakian’s crucial saves came in the second half. The visitors were far more threatening once Jed Wallace came off the bench and Rodak thwarted the substitute when he seemed certain to score before denying Benik Afobe with a reaction stop late on. His ninth clean sheet in nineteen appearances would have felt very satisfying indeed.
It was interesting to see Silva prefer Nathaniel Chalobah in central midfield to Harrison Reed after the England international’s encouraging showing at Manchester City on Saturday. You feel that, if Fulham are able to kept him fit – and there were a couple of moments last night where you worried after he stayed down – he might add the kind of ballast to the midfield that previous sides have lacked in the top flight. Chalobah was determined in the tackle and used the ball intelligently for the most part, outshining Tom Cairney on a night where bite was more necessary than style to overcome a gritty Millwall outfit. Silva’s options in midfield – the skipper, Jean Michael Seri, Reed and poor old Josh Onomah who doesn’t seem to get a look in after a strong start to the season – are frightening.
Neco Williams underlined the head coach’s attacking intentions on his home debut with a brilliant bit of play to break the deadlock. He has a seemingly telepathic understanding with Harry Wilson that comes from playing together with Liverpool and Wales so it was no surprise to see the pair swap passes down the right flank. He got to the byline in the manner of an old-fashioned full back and produced a driven low cross that allowed Mitrovic to sweep home his first of the night. If we are worried about Kenny Tete’s overall fitness (and there have to be concerns given how many injuries the Dutchman has picked up over the past year), then the 20 year old’s arrival on loan is a very shrewd bit of business. Williams might have been a little sloppy in his passing and positioning at times, but he was hardly alone in that.
Mitrovic’s remarkable scoring feats are almost beyond compare – he moved into the top ten of Fulham’s all-time goalscorers with his second goal last night – but his evolution into an all-round striker is actually far more notable with the top flight in mind. The predatory instincts that brought two goals from two shots on target have never been in doubt that the way he held the ball up, tested a beleaguered Millwall back line and roamed in search of the ball, was almost an exhibition of modern lone centre-forward play. The Serbian produced another sublime ball to set Harry Wilson away for Fulham’s third goal – just as he did at the Etihad at the weekend. The pundits and keyboard warriors pick holes in Mitrovic’s Premier League record, but I fancy him to prove a few people wrong next season.
Fulham were far from their fluent best against a dogged Millwall side, who could consider themselves pretty unfortunate to have been beaten by three goals. There were flashes of that sparkling attacking play, often prompted by the delightful feet of Fabio Carvalho, who would have had a couple of goals on another evening. He had to settle for an assist after Bartosz Bialkowski made a magnificent save to deny him, but the teenager was terrific throughout and didn’t give the ball away once. As we mentioned at the weekend, you’d never know he was the subject of a deadline day tug-of-war.
A workmanlike rather than dominant display leaves Fulham eight points clear of their nearest challengers at the top of the Championship, with a game in hand on Blackburn Rovers. They have scored a staggering 77 goals in 29 games, with a scarcely credible goal difference of +51. The potential for a level of second-tier domination that would even exceed that enjoyed by Jean Tigana’s exhilarating Division One winners is on. Whilst we all loved those play-off wins at Wembley, going up as champions is far better for the nerves – and the heart race. Silva’s side are setting some pace.