In rather Fulhamish fashion, having strolled towards the Championship summit with a combination of style and sublime football, Marco Silva’s side are limping lethargically towards the title. Denied by a Dominic Solanke spot-kick at Bournemouth on Saturday, the Whites were thoroughly outthought and outfought by a clever and combative Nottingham Forest side at Craven Cottage this evening. Steve Cooper’s team booked a play-off spot courtesy of a first-half goal from Philippe Zinckernagel – who profited from a breakdown in communication between Tim Ream and Marek Rodak – but they will fancy their chances of pipping the Cherries to the second automatic promotion place.

Cooper, who was on Fulham’s shortlist to succeed Scott Parker in the summer, has remarkably lifted Forest from bottom of the pile in September to only three points off second place. A precious victory against the already-promoted league leaders arrived after Zinckernagel had refused to give up a lost cause and poked home a hopeful through ball from Sam Surridge that goalkeeper Rodak and Ream had left to one another. But the preservation of a slender lead was down to a disciplined defensive effort directed by the calmness of veteran Steve Cook, who had his second outstanding game in SW6 this season after starring in his last outing for Bournemouth here before Christmas.

Forest certainly didn’t set their stall out to defend and had the better of the early openings with Jack Colback testing out Rodak’s reactions from 25 yards and the brilliant Brennan Johnson narrowly failing to feed Surridge with a low cross to the back post. The dreadful mix-up between Ream, one of Fulham’s most consistent performances this season and Rodak, killed a celebratory mood inside the Cottage – although the hosts should have levelled immediately when Harrison Reed released Fabio Carvalho, but the Portuguese under-21 international shot straight at Brice Samba.

The visitors might have doubled the lead on 24 minutes when a well-worked move culminated in Colback volleying into Rodak’s arms after a cushioned header into the midfielder’s path by the supple Surridge. The Slovakian goalkeeper then denied Zinckernagel another goal after another bright break, before Silva’s side finished the half strongly. Carvalho fired over from Aleksandar Mitrovic’s header down before the Serbian striker curled a free-kick fractionally over the bar on the stroke of half time having been fouled by the otherwise excellent Djed Spence.

Perhaps enlivened by some harsh half-time words, Fulham began the second period at some tempo. Bobby Decordova-Reid rifled wastefully over when he had plenty of time to convert Harry Wilson’s low ball before a vital touch from Samba prevented Mitrovic from heading home Neco Williams’ cross. Forest still look lively on the break and should have put the contest to bed when a fabulous flick from Johnson saw the Welshman burst away from Ream only for Rodak to fling himself in front of Surridge when the former Stoke striker looked certain to score at the back post.

Silva sent on boyhood Forest fan Tom Cairney to add creativity to the Fulham midfield but it was Carvalho, an increasing threat between the lines, who forced a fabulous fingertip save from Samba when his curler from the edge of the area appeared set to sneak inside the far post. Joe Worrall did brilliantly to block a Mitrovic shot at close quarters when Wilson seemed set to equalise having somewhere squeezed through the Forest defence.

Cooper’s charges still carried a real threat at the other end and Fulham were indebted to a brilliant saving tackle from Tosin Adarabioyo, who denied Johnson a tap-in, after a rapid raid along the right flank by substitute Richie Laryea. Fulham’s frustration boiled over after Wilson saw a tame shot off his weaker left side smothered by Samba and Adarabioyo volleyed over from the Welshman’s chipped free-kick, with Mitrovic booked for losing his cool when Keith Stroud halted a home attack after Ryan Yates and Scott McKenna had clashed heads.

The evening ended with the Hammersmith End decrying the quality of officiating and Silva in animated discussion with the referee, but Fulham had failed to take a succession of second half opportunities after gifting Forest the opener. Cooper’s resolute outfit were thoroughly deserving of three points and they could yet complete a remarkable rise into second spot, with a showdown at Bournemouth set for next week.

FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Rodak; Williams (Tete 77), Bryan (Muniz 77), Adarabioyo, Ream; Reed (Cairney 58), Seri; Wilson, Decordova-Reid, Carvalho, Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Gazzaniga, Hector, Chalobah, Kebano.

BOOKED: Reed, Mitrovic.

NOTTINGHAM FOREST (3-4-1-2): Samba; Worrall, Cook, McKenna; Spence, Yates, Garner, Colback (Laryea 74), Zinckernagel (Lolley 67); Johnson, Surridge (Cafu 73). Subs (not used): Horvath, Figueiredo, Silva.

BOOKED: Zinckernagel.

GOAL: Zinckernagel (14).

REFEREE: Keith Stroud (Hampshire).