A powerful Aleskandar Mitrovic header from a wonderfully worked free-kick ensured Fulham inflicted Middlesbrough’s first home league defeat since November 23rd and moved to within two wins of a return to the top flight. The Serbian striker’s 38th goal of an incredible season settled a tight encounter on a miserable night at the Riverside Stadium, although Chris Wilder’s side spurned several glorious chances to extend their unbeaten home run.
The decisive goal came seventeen minutes from time after Fabio Carvalho’s promising run towards the penalty area was cynically halted by Riley McGree. Marco Silva and his coaching staff have deployed several successful set piece variations this term – and Fulham executed another Motspur Park move flawlessly on the big stage here. Harrison Reed’s decoy run fooled the Boro rearguard and Harry Wilson’s delicious delivery allowed Mitrovic to run through an avenue of red shirts to head clinically past Joe Lumley. He might not catch Middlesbrough legend George Camsell, but the Fulham number nine has Guy Whittingham’s post-war second tier record of 42 goals firmly in his sights.
Given the drizzle and a swirling wind that whistled round the Riverside, this was a night for steel rather than style. The most miserly defence in the division stood firm, despite some shaky handling from Marek Rodak, even if they breathed a style of relief that Boro’s forwards forgot their shooting boots. Andraz Sporar, earlier denied by a smart bit of keeping from Rodak, flashed a header wide of goal from close range before substitute Josh Coburn glanced Marc Bola’s cross fractionally wide as well. Even deep into stoppage time, the opportunities still came for the home side with Duncan Watmore lashed over from close range after a cross had bounced back invitingly for him off Reed.
Fulham, who were without Neco Williams and Tom Cairney from the weekend win at Queens Park Rangers, began the sharper of the two sides. Reed rattled a dangerous cross right through the six yard box after being released along the right flank by Wilson before Mitrovic failed to capitalise on a dreadful defensive mistake from Dael Fry by dragging a shot desperately off target. Anferee Dijksteel then bailed out his defensive colleagues by hooking a clearance away from Carvalho just in the nick of time – before Reed took centre stage.
The ginger-haired dynamo became the Riverside’s pantomime villain after staying down having been caught late by a reckless challenge from Matt Crooks. Reed got to his feet when the visitors regained possession and run deep into home territory, supplying a deep cross for Mitrovic, whose header was field on his line by Lumley. Fulham had dominated the ball for much of the first half hour, but Wilder’s men finished the half strongly.
Jonny Howson drove a shot straight into Rodak’s gloves from range and Fulham’s defence largely dealt with the home threat. Tosin Adarabioyo remained as composed in possession as ever with his stature perfect to nullify any more direct football whilst stand-in skipper Ream came up with a vital block to prevent Crooks equalising from close range after a delicious delivery from Marcus Tavernier.
Boro upped the ante after the interval, being far more assertive both in the ferocity of their press and when they had the ball. Mitrovic made a magnificent sliding block on the edge of his own area as the hosts threatened from a free kick, before Silva’s side almost scored a sensational counter-attacking goal. They were some sublime touches from Chalobah, Mitrovic and Carvalho as the ball reached Kenny Tete in an advanced position on the right flank. Bobby Decordova-Reid slid in to connect with the Dutchman’s low ball across, but in keeping with the Jamaican’s luck in front of goal of late he failed to find the net.
Rodak then made a sharp save at his near post after Sporar’s low shot from just outside the box had skidded off the sodden turf uncomfortably for the Slovenian goalkeeper. The importance of that stop was underlined when the Whites went in front with Wilson’s fourteenth assist of the season as Mitrovic displayed the sort of finishing ability that sages such as Parker had doubted last year. Bournemouth’s defeat at the Hawthorns opens up an eleven point gap at the top of the table, which leaves the door to English football’s elite tantalising ajar.
MIDDLESBROUGH (3-5-2): Lumley; Dijksteel, Fry, McNair; Peltier (McGree 60), Taylor (Bola 56), Crooks (Coburn 77), Tavernier, Howson; Watmore, Sporar. Subs (not used): Daniels, Bamba, Balogun, Connolly.
BOOKED: Crooks, McGree, McNair.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Rodak; Tete, Bryan (A. Robinson 82), Adarabioyo, Ream; Chalobah (Onomah 64), Reed; Wilson, Decordova-Reid (Kebano 64), Carvalho; Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Gazzaniga, Hector, Seri, Muniz.
BOOKED: Carvalho, Reed.
GOAL: Mitrovic (73).
REFEREE: James Linington (Newport).