Mitrovic beats Blues

Aleksandar Mitrovic’s twelfth goal of the season helped Fulham to a gritty win over Birmingham City this afternoon in the teeming rain. The Serbian striker capitalised on an error from Blues’ goalkeeper Lee Camp, who spilled Cyrus Christie’s cross, clinically firing home the winner from close range. The only dampener on the afternoon for Scott Parker was Mitrovic’s fifth booking of the season – after a clash with Jude Bellingham – that rules him out of the upcoming local derby with QPR.

Mitrovic, who captained the side in the absence of the ill Tom Cairney, had a storming game up front for the visitors. He had a goal ruled out for offside after ten minutes and frequently linked up effectively with Bobby Decordova-Reid, who went agonisingly close to opening his Fulham account but steered wide on the stretch inside the six-yard box. After the break, Mitrovic did brilliantly to flick another ball into Decordova-Reid’s path but Camp stood up for long enough to repel the shot.

The decisive moment came seven minutes in the second half. Christie, on as an early substitute for Maxime Le Marchand, burst clear down the right flank but his cross appeared to be simple for Camp to deal with at the back post, only for the Northern Ireland international to fumble it and Mitrovic tucked away the loose ball with aplomb.

Fulham passed up several good opportunities to extend their lead. Camp let a Christie header spill out of grasp and Anthony Knockaert’s attempted chip deflected wide. The unlikely source of Denis Odoi almost supplied a second but his rasping drive from the edge of the box flew narrowly off target. Mitrovic created the best opening with a sublime through ball in the second minute of stoppage time, but Aboubakar Kamara was denied by an excellent save from Camp, who got a crucial touch to the Frenchman’s finish with his feet – diverting onto the base of the post.

At the other end, Marek Rodak, who came back in for Marcus Bettinelli after his suspension for being sent off at Middlesbrough, produced a mature performance to repel a lively Blues’ attack. The Slovakian made a smart save to deny left back Kristian Pedersen after three minutes and the home side stepped up the pressure after that in a ten minute spell when they penned Fulham back. Former Arsenal youngster Dan Crowley drilled over from twenty minutes and Rodak made a couple of good stops in quick succession as he fielded a shot from Kerim Mrabti and then pushed away Fran Villalba’s volley.

Birmingham pushed for an equaliser with sending on Jeremie Bela, who had joined on a free transfer in midweek, and Jefferson Montero. The latter almost produced a goal with his first touch as his floated cross found Lukasz Jutkiewicz  at the far post, but Rodak reacted quickly to turn the striker’s header onto the crossbar. Fulham held firm during five nervy minutes of stoppage time to record their second clean sheet in as many away games and tiptoe into the top six.

BIRMINGHAM CITY (4-2-3-1): Camp; Colin, Pedersen, Roberts, Clarke-Salter; Sunjic, Bellingham; Crowley (Gimenez 64), Villalba (Montero 79), Mrbati (Bela 62); Jutkiewicz. Subs (not used): Trueman, Harding, Davis, Maghoma.

BOOKED: Bellingham, Clarke-Salter, Roberts.

FULHAM (4-3-3): Rodak; Odoi, Le Marchand (Christie 35), Mawson, Ream; Reed, Johansen, Decordova-Reid (Kamara 81); Knockaert, Cavaleiro (Onomah 66), Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, McDonald, de la Torre, Kebano.

BOOKED: Mitrovic, Christie.

GOAL: Mitrovic (52).

REFEREE: Jarred Gillett (Australia).

ATTENDANCE: 21,334.

Tenacious Tigers punish flat Fulham

This was the most dispiriting defeat of the season for Scott Parker. Any positives from last weekend’s battling point at Middlesbrough, where the Whites held out for more than seventy minutes with ten men, were swept away as Hull underlined their own promotion credentials with a polished performance well worthy of picking up all three points at Craven Cottage.

Parker can ill afford many more slip ups with a testing run of fixtures in the lead up to Christmas. Fulham’s faltering start to the season has yet to prove terminal to their hopes of returning to the Premier League, largely as a result of no clear front runner emerging in the promotion race, but – with Shahid Khan and Tony Khan in attendance ahead of the Jaguars’ visit to London this weekend – this was a poor time to put in their worst performance of the campaign.

The home side never really recovered from the early loss of Joe Bryan, who sustained a shoulder injury in a high challenge with Josh Bowler. His replacement Maxime Le Marchand never looked comfortable at left back and was beaten far too easily at the far post by Bowler when Kamil Grosicki, who had seen an early shot saved by Marcus Bettinelli, and Callum Elder cleverly worked an opening on the left. The ball ricocheted off the Frenchman but Bowler was quickest to react – volleying his first senior goal beyond Bettinelli with aplomb.

Grant McCann’s side would have been forgiven for protecting their precious lead, but buoyed by their recent victories over Nottingham Forest and Derby County, they were eager to add to their lead. The Tigers were a threat throughout on the counter attack and might have extended their advantage before half-time had the impressive Jarrod Bowen not inadvertently blocked a shot from Jon Toral.

Fulham again enjoyed more than the lion’s share of possession, but struggled to do anything with it. Their passing was well below par, typified by a hesitant performance from captain Tom Cairney in the middle of the park. Aleksandar Mitrovic looked horribly isolated up front, with Bobby Decordova-Reid sacrificed for Anthony Knockaert at half-time in search of more creativity. Parker’s side managed just one shot on target in the ninety minutes – a simple save for George Long when Mitrovic spun away for his man to finish the one first-half move of note – but the Serbian spurned an even better opportunity when he headed a corner wide from close range at the end of the first half.

The home side were looking much livelier at the beginning of the second half, but some excellent defending from the outstanding Jordy de Vijs and a lack of a telling final ball preserved Hull’s lead. Parker’s side huffed and puffed but they were picked off by a clinical counter-attack. Jackson Irvine bisected the Fulham defence with a beautifully measured pass and Bowen, a menace all afternoon, found the bottom corner with the coolest of finishes.

To all intents and purposes, that was the game done and dusted. Parker sent on Aboubakar Kamara but Fulham’s surfeit of forwards seemed only to get in each other’s way. Hull looked the likelier to add to the scoreline and the classy Grosicki was unfortunate not to a grab for himself when he strode past Denis Odoi and drove wide of the near post.

Fulham’s final indignity was the calamitous nature of Hull’s third goal six minutes from the end. Bowen burst through the remnants of the home defence and, although Bettinelli saved the Welsh forward’s low shot with his feet, the rebound fell kindly for substitute Tom Eaves, who had the simplest of finishes from close range. On this evidence, McCann’s men look a far surer bet for the play-offs than their hosts.

FULHAM (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Odoi (Kamara 61), Bryan (Le Marchand 6), Mawson, Ream; Reed, Johansen, Cairney; Decordova-Reid (Knockaert 45), Cavaleiro, Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Norman, S. Sessegnon, McDonald, Onomah.

BOOKED: Reed, Johansen.

HULL CITY (4-2-3-1): Long; Lichai, Elder, Burke, de Wijs; Da Silva Lopes, Irvine (Honeyman 88); Grosicki, Bowler (Eaves 54), Toral; Bowen. Subs (not used): Ingram, Tafazolli, Pennington, Batty.

BOOKED: Irvine, Eaves.

GOALS: Bowler (9), Bowen (57), Eaves (84).

REFEREE: Keith Stroud (Bournemouth).

ATTENDANCE: 18,186.

Parker proud as ten-man Fulham battle for point

No wonder Scott Parker said this fighting draw at the Riverside Stadium was the proudest he’d been of his Fulham players. The Whites battled hard to claim a point in the north east – playing more than seventy minutes with ten men after goalkeeper Marek Rodak was sent off for handling the ball outside his penalty area.

Such was Fulham’s resolution that Rodak’s replacement in goal, the recently dropped Marcus Bettinelli, was only forced into one serious save – when he gathered Paddy McNair’s drive in the final minute of stoppage time – and the visitors might feel aggrieved at leaving Teesside with just a point having created the clearer chances despite their numerical disadvantage. Aleksandar Mitrovic missed a good opportunity from a couple of yards out in the first half and should have done better than head over Joe Bryan’s inviting cross after the break, while Tom Cairney fired just wide.

This was a second successive goalless draw for Jonathan Woodgate’s Middlesbrough, who looked toothless in attack as they dropped into the Championship relegation zone. Their profligacy in front of goal was on show before Rodak’s early departure as Ashley Fletcher steered wastefully wide after Marcus Tavernier had led a lightning quick counter-attack following a Fulham corner.

Fulham showed their own intent with captain Cairney extending Aynsley Pears with a swerving strike from distance and Dael Fry bravely blocked a drive from Mitrovic, who was looking to pick up from where he had left off against Luton in midweek. But the Londoners’ fortunes took a turn for the worse after Rodak’s ill-advised dash from his box saw him beaten to Lewis Wing’s through ball by Jonny Howson and the Slovakian was red carded as he blocked the former Norwich midfielder’s finish with his hands.

That forced Parker into a quick reorganisation with Josh Onomah’s first start for Fulham seeing him replaced by Bettinelli, but the visitors were still looking threatening on the break. Nine minutes before the break, Ivan Cavaleiro and Bobby Decordova-Reid combined well down the right and Mitrovic somehow failed to supply the finishing touch to a low cross with the ball deflecting away to safety.

Boro saw plenty of the ball but struggled to fashion clear-cut openings with the closest the hosts came to a goal before the break seeing Britt Assombalonga head harmslessly wide after drifting inside Denis Odoi to reach a dangerous cross from Wing. The second half followed a similar pattern, with Fulham happy to try and blunt Boro’s ambition, but Parker’s side were by no means content to simply sit down behind the ball.

They carved out the first chance of the second period when some clever interplay between Cairney and Bryan released the Fulham full back behind the Boro defence but Bryan lacked the belief to go for goal himself and his low cross flashed through the six-yard box and away to safety. Bryan provided an even better opening a quarter of an hour later when he floated into a lovely cross for Mitrovic, but the Serbian striker headed over from four years out. A man of his quality should have done better.

By now, the Riverside natives were getting restless. The home fans were less than impressed with their side’s lack of ruthlessness as twice good crosses from Howson and Hayden Coulson were not vigorously attacked by men in red. Boro’s best opportunity came from a dead ball when Wing was unlucky to see his low strike cannon back off the outside off the post after Harrison Reed had crudely halted a threatening run from McNair.

The former Manchester United utility man provided Boro’s only shot on target in the final minute of added time but his deflected strike was easily held by Bettinelli. The draw felt like a missed opportunity for Middlesbrough to shake off their recent malaise and extended their scoreless run to more than four and a half hours.

Fulham would have been targeting a rare away victory prior to kick off, but Parker was delighted both by his side’s character after the sending off and a first clean sheet in six games. ‘This is the proudest I have been of this team,’ he said afterwards. ‘I have been in this role for 6 months and we top many of the division’s stats charts. Whether that is possession, whether it is that we produce the most shots on target. We concede the fewest shots on our goal. But what the players showed me today you can’t measure. They showed desire, passion, effort and a real mentality about us. What we showed today is going to define us. This is a massive moment for us and a certainly a massive moment for me.’

MIDDLESBROUGH (3-5-2): Pears; McNair, Fry, Ayala; Howson, Coulson (Johnson 67), Wing, Saville (Brown 64), Tavernier; Fletcher, Assombalonga. Subs (not used): Mejias, Dijksteel, Clayton, Bola, Liddle.

BOOKED: Tavernier, Coulson.

FULHAM (4-3-3): Rodak; Odoi, Bryan, Mawson, Ream; Reed, Onomah (Bettinelli 19), Cairney; Cavaleiro (Le Marchand 84), Decordova-Reid (Knockaert 81), Mitrovic. Subs (not used): S. Sessegnon, McDonald, Johansen, Kamara.

BOOKED: Odoi, Reed.

SENT OFF: Rodak (17).

REFEREE: Peter Bankes (Merseyside).

ATTENDANCE: 19,101.

Mitrovic hat-trick floors Hatters

Aleksandar Mitrovic’s first Fulham hat-trick helped Fulham return to winning ways as they clinched a nervy victory over Luton Town in a five goal thriller at Craven Cottage tonight.

Mitrovic handed the Hatters a lesson in finishing to twice help the Whites establish a two-goal cushion – but Fulham’s defensive frailties, brutally exposed at Stoke on Saturday, resurfaced again as Graeme Jones’ side threatened to claim a battling point. The excellent Izzy Brown helped Luton gain a foothold in the second half and a glancing header from Dan Potts was followed by a close-range finish from substitute Kazenga Lua-Lua as the visitors made Scott Parker’s side sweat until the very end.

Parker made two changes after his 3-4-1-2 system slumped at Stoke, with Marek Rodak handed his league debut in goal and Denis Odoi returning at right back as Fulham switched to a back four. The hosts almost made the perfect start but James Shea saved well from Ivan Cavaleiro, but Luton were looking lively on the break. James Collins might feel he should have done better than fire wide after he had seized upon a poor pass from Tim Ream and latched onto Brown’s sumptuous through ball – and Luton were punished almost immediately.

Bobby Decordova-Reid intercepted a wayward pass from Matty Pearson and Cavaleiro drove towards the box before slipping a simple pass into the path of Mitrovic. The Serbian striker shrugged off the attentions of Sonny Bradley and smashed a venomous finish beyond Shea. The Luton keeper then did his best to keep Town in the contest saving bravely from Tom Cairney and Anthony Knockaert in quick succession – before an acrobatic overhead from Mitrovic drifted harmlessly over the bar.

Luton still threatened on the counter-attack with Brown and Collins causing real problems for the Fulham rearguard. The Chelsea loanee looked dangerous every time he ran at the Fulham defence and he delivered another excellent pass that allowed Collins to canter past Odoi only for the forward to lose his composure as he snatched at his shot.

Fulham finished the half strongly but couldn’t find a second. Knockaert curled fractionally wide when he cut inside onto his left foot before Cavaleiro fizzed an effort past the opposite corner and Mitrovic was inches away from connecting with a low cross from Joe Bryan after the full back had robbed James Bree of possession.

Luton emerged for the second half with a fiery team talk from Jones ringing in their ears. They might have been level straight away when Harry Cornick fired into the side netting after being released by Brown, who then saw a deflected shot pushed aside by Rodak. Their enterprising start deserved better than going further behind but Fulham doubled the lead from their first real attack of the second half.

Knockaert slipped a ball down the side of the Luton defence and Decordova-Reid raced beyond Potts before picking out Mitrovic with a low cross – giving the former Newcastle forward the simplest of finishes from close range. But the Hatters deserve immense credit for refusing to fold and they found a route back into the contest on the hour mark.

Brown floated a free-kick into the danger area and Potts ran across Ream to head home his first goal in more than a year. That briefly stunned the hosts but they summoned up a fine riposte seven minutes later when Mitrovic’s diving header from a cleverly worked free-kick between Cairney and Bryan took him to the top of the Championship scoring charts.

Fulham briefly threatened to make the scoreline look much more comfortable with Shea pushing away a powerful Cavaleiro drive, but they were left hanging on for the final minute of stoppage time after Luke Bolton got to the byline and delivered a low cross that Lua-Lua tapped in at the back post. That late setback proved only a consolation – but it was hard to avoid the feeling that Fulham, with all their attacking talent, had made this victory far too difficult for themselves.

FULHAM (4-3-3): Rodak; Odoi, Bryan, Mawson, Ream; Reed (McDonald 85), Decordova-Reid (Johansen 81), Cairney; Knockaert (Onomah 70), Cavaleiro, Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, S. Sessegnon, Le Marchand, Kamara.

BOOKED: Cairney.

GOALS: Mitrovic (16, 53, 67).

LUTON TOWN (4-3-3): Shea; Bree (Bolton 70), Potts, Pearson, Bradley; Tunnicliffe, Cranie, Mpanzu; Cornick (Lua-Lua 78), Brown, Collins (McManaman 78). Subs (not used): Sluga, Shinnie, Jones, Butterfield.

GOALS: Potts (60), Lua-Lua (90+3).

REFEREE: John Brooks (Leicestershire).

ATTENDANCE: 18,082.

Steely Stoke punish Parker’s tactical gamble

Just what is it about Stoke City that scrambles the minds of Fulham managers? Five years ago, the Whites crashed out of the Premier League here after Felix Magath made the mystifying decision to play Dan Burn, a 6ft 5in centre half, at right back. This afternoon, Scott Parker selected Joe Bryan, a 5ft 7in left back, as one of three centre backs. Through no fault of his own one of Fulham’s most consistent performers of this campaign began a target for high balls pumped towards Lee Gregory – and the visitors, after making an encouraging start, never recovered once the striker’s flick on was seized upon by Tyrese Campbell to give the Potters the lead.

Parker’s decision to start with an adventurous 3-4-1-2 was undoubtedly influenced by Fulham’s second half display against Charlton before the international break, when he risked a bold tactical switch at half time as the hosts chased the game. Bryan filled as an emergency centre back there, but Charlton rarely pressed into defensive duties in the middle of the back three; the former Bristol City full back was far busier today. The change in system also allowed Parker to accommodate Bobby Decordova-Reid, who had starred off the bench against the Addicks, but the forward was anonymous this afternoon.

Fulham’s new system, which left them looking laborious and lethargic at times, also removed their natural width with notional wing-backs Anthony Knockaert and Ivan Cavaleiro looking lost when pushed high up the pitch to support an isolated Aleksandar Mitrovic as well as absent when it came to assisting an overworked back three. Harrison Reid and Harry Arter contrived to get in each other’s way in centre midfield, so all in all it was an inauspicious change that highlighted Parker’s inexperience as a manager.

It was a familiar story as Fulham enjoyed 78% of possession but struggled to create clear cut chances. The visitors began on the front foot, but went behind on the quarter hour mark from Stoke’s first attack. The simple nature of the goal will grate with Parker. A long kick from Adam Federeci allowed Gregory to climb above Bryan in the air and Campbell burst away from Tim Ream before finishing clinically across Marcus Bettinelli, who slipped just as the Stoke striker was about to pull the trigger.

Despite enjoying most of the ball, Fulham could easily have been three down at half time. Gregory was instrumental again in releasing Joe Allen behind the visitors’ defence but this time Bettinelli spread himself well to save the Welsh international’s curling effort. Teenager Campbell, the son of former Arsenal and Everton striker Kevin, might have grabbed a second on the half hour but an untimely slip allowed Bettinelli to block his shot before Alfie Mawson got in the way of the follow-up.

Fulham played plenty of pretty football in front of a well drilled Stoke defence but struggled for penetration. The equaliser they craved almost arrived five minutes before the break when Ivan Cavaleiro fizzed in a low cross from the right that deflected first off Sam Clucas and then Mitrovic before trickling wide of the far post.

The home side began the second half on the front foot and almost added a second instantly when Bettinelli had to improvise to save another effort from Allen with his feet, but the Potters were largely content to soak up waves of Fulham pressure and hit their opponents on the break. The superb Cameron Carter-Vickers, a rumoured Fulham transfer target in the summer, marshalled Mitrovic with a modicum of fuss and genuine chances remained at a premium.

Arter drew the first save of the match from Federeci when a dipping volley from 20 yards threatened the far corner, before some strong hold-up play from Mitrovic created the space for Cairney to curl one towards the far corner from just outside the box but the Fulham skipper’s shot was deflected just wide. Decordova-Reid drilled disappointingly wide from eleven yards and then an intricately worked free-kick saw Cairney’s tame shot easily fielded by Federeci.

Fulham ramped up the pressure but their final ball was too often lacking. When Cavaleiro did conjure up a dangerous delivery, Decordova-Reid headed straight at Federeci and the closest Fulham actually came to a goal was when Bryan, by now operating as a marauding creator, grazed the crossbar with a dipping drive.

Just as Parker’s men looked to pen Stoke back for a final push, the home side punished Fulham’s profligacy with a sucker punch. The tireless Gregory released substitute Scott Hogan behind the remnants of the Fulham defence with a perfectly weighted through ball and, as the former Brentford forward attempted to skip around Bettinelli, the Fulham keeper brought him down. Gregory sent him the wrong way from the spot to seal back-to-back wins for Stoke, who climb off the bottom of the Championship table.

Nathan Jones celebrated with all the relief of a man whose job has been on the line for much of the first two months of the season, but Stoke’s victory was made much simpler by Parker’s tinkering. Fulham can’t afford to hand over points so carelessly if they want to be in the promotion shake-up come the spring.

STOKE CITY (4-3-1-2): Federeci; Edwards, Martins Indi, Baath, Carter-Vickers; Allen, Ndiaye, Clucas (Lindsay 90); Etebo; Gregory (Vokes 90), Campbell (Hogan 76). Subs (not used): Butland, McClean, Ince, Duffy.

BOOKED: Ndiaye, Baath.

GOALS: Campbell (16), Gregory (pen 80).

FULHAM (3-4-1-2): Bettinelli; Mawson, Ream, Bryan; Knockaert (Kebano 83), Cavaleiro, Arter (Onomah 64), Reed; Decordova-Reid, Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Rodak, Christie, Odoi, Le Marchand, Kamara.

BOOKED: Mitrovic, Bettinelli.

REFEREE: Andy Davies (Hampshire).

ATTENDANCE: 23,189