After two dispiriting defeats, this was a fitting way for Fulham to seal an immediate return to the top flight. Aleksandar Mitrovic – the man whose goals have sparked their surge to the top of the Championship table – grabbed a glorious brace either side of an impudent finish from the fabulously talented Fabio Carvalho as Marco Silva’s stylish side removed any doubt about their destination by putting three past poor Preston North End before half time. Craven Cottage has long been a throwback to English football’s glorious past, but this Fulham side felt like a throwback to a previous era where the shackles were removed and adventure was encouraged.
Silva’s overhaul of Scott Parker’s suffocating football has been easy on the eye and remarkably effective. Fulham started the season as overwhelming favourites to bounce straight back from the crushing pain of relegation, but even the Portugese head coach has to have been pleasantly surprised at how serene his first nine months in the job have proven. Mitrovic, a man transformed from the one who missed the decisive penalty as Serbia failed to make the European Championships before being ludicrously left out of a team that couldn’t finish their dinner, has bullied Championship defences into submission from the outset. It is preposterous that the Serbian man mountain has forty goals with five games to go – he made a mockery of concerns about his fitness following the defeat of Derby with a domineering display here.
There were certainly nerves at the start of the evening following a poor home display against Coventry and the meek capitulation at Pride Park on Friday night. North End looked in the mood to capitalise on any home jitters with Cameron Archer and Daniel Johnson combining to create an opening for Ched Evans, whose deflected shot was kept out by Marek Rodak. The Slovakian goalkeeper, perhaps playing for a place in the Premier League, displayed all of his agility to turn a long-range effort from Ben Whiteman that had looped off Tim Ream. Those early scares seemed to enliven the hosts, who took the lead in the tenth minute.
Joe Bryan shook off the disappointment of being run ragged in Derby on Good Friday by pinching possession off Brad Potts and bursting away from Ali McCann. He slipped a clever ball between the retreating Preston defenders and Mitrovic slotted a low finish past Daniel Iversen after leaving Liam Lindsay trailing in his wake. The visitors probably had a good idea it wasn’t going to be their night when Evans limped off after 25 minutes, but they were struggling to make any serious impression by this point. Carvalho curled an effort wide from twenty yards after lovely one-touch football involving Neeskens Kebano and Mitrovic before Harrison Reed headed over at a corner.
The Whites doubled their lead eleven minutes before half time. A clipped ball was masterfully flicked into Kebano’s path by Mitrovic and the Congolese winger bore infield with real intent. He got a bit of fortune when his square ball hit the heels of Lindsay and broke invitingly for Carvalho, with the teenager lifting a lovely finish over the helplessly isolated Iversen. You could feel the Cottage crowd relax with the construction of a commanding cushion, which was soon extended with a goal that encapsulated Fulham’s flowing football.
White shirts poured forward as Mitrovic parted the Preston defence with a one-two at pace with Harry Wilson, firing clinically past Iversen after a deft piece of control. Ryan Lowe’s side might easily have disintegrated after that but, to their immense credit, Preston came out with renewed rigour. Only a stupendous save from Rodak prevented Cameron Archer from reducing their arrears straight after the restart as he tipped the striker’s measured strike onto the bar, but Fulham also hit the woodwork shortly afterwards with Iversen redeeming himself for an atrocious ball out from the back by preventing Mitrovic from completing another hat-trick.
The Preston goalkeeper then made excellent stops to deny Carvalho and Mitrovic in quick succession with Johnson firing wide from the edge of the box. For the first time, the contest took on the qualities of an exhibition as the home faithful acclaimed their heroes before Neco Williams lined up a drive from distance that only just cleared the crossbar. Ben Whiteman went close with a free-kick, but Fulham weren’t unduly discomforted on their big night as Silva’s side sealed their return to English football’s elite in emphatic fashion.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Rodak; Williams, Bryan, Adarabioyo, Ream; Reed (Seri 70), Cairney; Wilson, Kebano, Carvalho (Decordova-Reid 75); Mitrovic (Muniz 77). Subs (not used): Gazzaniga, Hector, A. Robinson, Chalobah.
GOALS: Mitrovic (9, 41), Carvalho (34).
PRESTON NORTH END (3-1-4-2): Iversen; van den Berg, Lindsay, Hughes; Whiteman; Potts (Sinclair 69), Johnson, McCann, Earl (Diaby 45); Archer, Evans (Maguire 25). Subs (not used): Hudson, Cunningham, Huntingdon, Rafferty.
REFEREE: Leigh Doughty (Lancashire).