Fulham frustrated by courageous Charlton

Fulham missed out on the opportunity to make serious inroads on the Championship’s top two as they were held to a goalless draw by a committed Charlton side at the Valley tonight.

The Addicks were well-drilled and diligent throughout, keeping Fulham at bay with a spirited defensive display, and looked more threatening the longer a soporific contest went on. Buoyed by the news that boss Lee Bowyer had put pen to paper on a new three-year contract at long last, Charlton were good value for their first clean sheet in seventeen games but barely tested Marek Rodak in the visiting goal.

Fulham, already without their talisman in Aleksandar Mitrovic, were dealt another serious blow before kick-off as Anthony Knockaert was ruled out for approximately three weeks with a hamstring problem. Shorn of a significant source of creativity as well as their main goal threat, Fulham lacked both the guile to unlock a disciplined Charlton defence and the penetration to take advantage when they did get into the final third. Their clearest chance fell to defender Michael Hector, who contrived to head wide from close range, having peeled off his man to get to Ivan Cavaleiro’s corner unattended in the second half.

There was little of the vibrant movement that had characterised the first half an hour against Middlesbrough on Friday and a distinct raising of the tempo after the break merely petered out. Scott Parker’s solution to Knockaert’s absence was to shoehorn Josh Onomah into a left-wing role where he toiled manfully but looked uncomfortable – and the manager’s substitutions with the game in the balance were baffling. On came Cyrus Christie as the Whites switched to a back three when a more adventurous change might have penned Charlton back and teenage striker Jay Stansfield barely touched the ball having been given just three minutes to make an impression.

The home side began brightly and forced a succession of early corners but Fulham gradually grabbed control of the contest, dominating possession but struggling to fashion clear-cut openings. Onomah grazed the side netting having darted in from the left before Bobby Decordova-Reid went close twice in two minutes. Dillion Phillips did well to turn a swerving shot aside at his near post and then was alert again to claw an effort to safety from much closer range after Tom Cairney had sent the on-loan man Cardiff man through on goal.

Cairney then produced a beautifully threaded ball to release Joe Bryan into the inside left channel but the advancing full-back shot right across the face of goal to finish a flowing move. Fulham failed to seriously extend the Charlton defence again before the interval, with the home side occasionally looking dangerous on the counter. Nippy winger Alfie Doughty showed a blistering turn of pace to take the ball away from three Fulham players on a direct 60-yard run before running into Tim Ream as he approached the penalty area.

Hector, who was composed once again at the heart of the Fulham defence, spurned the game’s best opportunity at the start of the second half, heading criminally wide when completely unmarked at the far post. There was a let off for Jason Pearce, who was robbed in a dangerous position by Onomah, after Tom Lockyer produced a well-timed challenge to prevent Decordova-Reid from surging through on goal.

Fulham’s high press was causing Charlton a goal deal of discomfort. Onomah pounced on an error from Josh Cullen but Cavaleiro’s eventual shot was bravely blocked by Pearce and Kevin McDonald’s wild attempt on the follow-up flew into the visiting fans behind the goal. The lively Doughty was Charlton’s most promising outlet – and the 20 year-old winger seized on a rare mistake from Harry Arter but Rodak was equal to his low effort at his near post. Ream then produced a superb saving tackle to deny Tomer Hemed as the Israeli seemed set to score a sixth goal in four games against the Whites.

Bowyer’s changes were far more adventurous than Parker’s as the Charlton boss introduced Jonny Williams and the returning Lyle Taylor as he sought a late winner. Doughty drove disappointingly over after working space down the left with Taylor well placed in the centre and he kicked the turf in anger, but the youngster showed plenty of promise on a night when inventiveness was in short supply.

Fulham probed away patiently in front of the Charlton defence but looked alarmingly toothless without Mitrovic’s hulking presence and it was actually the home side who looked more likely to nick it late on. Christie produced a magnificent piece of defending to snuff out the danger as Williams appeared certain to turn home a Taylor cross after a break sparked by another beautiful Doughty ball. Right at the death, Pearce glanced a Cullen free-kick wide and Fulham had to be content with a third consecutive clean sheet and cutting the deficit to second-placed Leeds to three points.

CHARLTON ATHLETIC (4-2-3-1): Phillips; Matthews, Purrington, Lockyer, Pearce; Pratley, Cullen; Morgan (Williams 62), Doughty, Oztumer (Green 80); Hemed (Taylor 70). Subs (not used): Maynard-Brewer, Sarr, Oshilaja, Dempsey.

BOOKED: Cullen.

FULHAM (4-3-3): Rodak; Odoi, Bryan, Hector, Ream; McDonald, Arter (Christie 74), Cairney (Johansen 77); Cavaleiro, Onomah (Stansfield 88), Decordova-Reid. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, S. Sessegnon, Kongolo, de la Torre.

BOOKED: McDonald.

REFEREE: Stephen Martin (Staffordshire).


Hector hits the ground running

I’ll admit to feeling somewhat skeptical when it was reported that Fulham had paid fractionally under £8m for the services of Michael Hector from Chelsea. The prospect of dropping a defender, who had been short of any serious match practice for six months, into the heat of a Championship promotion push when the Whites had little margin for error if they wanted to challenge for the top two positions seemed somewhat high risk. The Jamaican international might me wince a little with an error on his debut that allowed Aston Villa back into the FA Cup tie, but since then he has hardly put a foot wrong.

Hector does have recent pedigree at this level. He finished last season in outstanding form for Sheffield Wednesday and was reportedly close to moving to Hillsborough on a permanent basis. Fulham’s defensive issues have been well documented this season, with all too familiar lapses undermining Scott Parker’s laudable aim of returning to the top flight by playing progressive and pretty football. It was a bold call to offer a new signing the chance to tighten things up at the back and the results have been immediate. Fulham had kept two clean sheets in ten games before his arrival and have now managed two on the bounce.

Last night’s victory over Middlesbrough illustrated his importance. He was commanding from the off, organising the defence in a manner that one might have expected Alfie Mawson to do. It was arguably Hector’s aerial aptitude that meant the visitors had little joy in front of goal. The new signing won everything in the air against Rudy Gestede, clearing his lines effectively over and over again, and was impressive on the floor as well – no more so than when he timed a late tackle to perfection inside the penalty area as precious seconds ticked away. This was the dominant performance of a man with hundreds of club appearances under his belt, not somebody making only a third start.

There will be tougher tests to come and it is far to say that Boro only belatedly threatened to get in behind Fulham once Ashley Fletcher came off the bench with ten minutes to play. Hector’s assuredness is encouraging, though, if only because the type of victories he has inspired – accurately described as ‘gritty’ by Parker – are just the sort of successes required if the Whites are to make the top two this term. The new man’s distribution doesn’t look out of place in a side that looks to dominate possession, either, and so composed was his display you could make a case for him rivalling goalscorer Anthony Knockaert for the man of the match award.

The addition of Hector and Terence Kongolo, who watched from the Cottage balcony only a matter of hours after completing his loan move from Huddersfield, so early in the January transfer window gives Parker the sort of strength in depth defensively that he had been lacking to do that. His side can more easily switch to three centre halves – something the Fulham boss has used as a tactical tweak later on in games regularly this season – and, in the absence of Aleksandar Mitrovic, will need to be more miserly in front of Marek Rodak in any case. There’s a long way to go, but the man already dubbed ‘Virgil van Mike’ has already played in part in putting Fulham right back in the automatic promotion picture.

Parker pleased by Fulham’s ‘grittiness’

Scott Parker was delighted that Fulham piled some pressure on the Championship’s top two by beating Middlesbrough tonight – but also hailed the way his side married their pretty football with a steely determination to grind out a win.

Fulham were good value for their victory over in-form Boro and should have scored more than Anthony Knockaert’s early close-range finish, but Parker was pleased that the Whites were able to leap above local rivals Brentford before the Bees, Leeds and West Bromwich Albion play their fixtures tomorrow.

It’s always good to play early and before the teams above who you are trying to chase. You put that pressure on. The main aim for us is to focus on ourselves and keep working out what gets you results in this league, and what gets you results is an endeavour, a work ethic. And we’ve shown that the last few weeks.

Parker also applauded his side’s sheer grit as they survived a much improved Boro showing in the second half, with new arrival Michael Hector to the fore.

At times this year we have been in a good position and we’ve slipped up and we’ve hit little bumps. But we have to concentrate on ourselves and keep winning games but ultimately keep producing what we produced tonight. I think you have seen two sides of this team which pleases me most. The first half you saw a team that moved the ball well and in the second half you saw a grittiness to us.

The Fulham head coach was happy to claim three points in the absence of star striker Aleksandar Mitrovic – appreciating the movement of his forwards in a first half that the home side dominated.

You miss Aleks and what he brings to this team but I thought the way we played and what the players did, how we looked in the first half was very pleasing for me really. The first half I thought we were fantastic in what we did, the way we played, the way we moved the ball. Everything we worked on in the week worked well.

Two or three nil at half-time I think would have been a fair reflection of what we did. And in the second half really we were just searching for that second goal to take a deep breath and see the game out. But we saw the game out and kept a clean sheet which was key and a good performance all round.

Knockaert fires Fulham up to third

Anthony Knockaert’s first Championship goal since September was enough to lift Fulham up to third as the Whites ended Middlesbrough’s recent revival with a narrow win at Craven Cottage tonight.

Fulham followed up a battling victory at Hull with a far more complete display against Jonathan Woodgate’s men but, not for the first time this season, lacked the ruthlessness necessary to see their dominance reflected in the scoreline. Much of that may be attributable to the absence of Aleksandar Mitrovic, who has bagged 18 goals in 26 appearances this term and is now sidelined for the next three weeks with an ankle injury. The home side’s approach play was eye-catching but without the Serbian’s finishing instincts Boro were right in the game until the final whistle.

Parker’s side could have settled the contest inside half an hour, but instead had to settle for a smartly taken seventh-minute goal from Knockaert. The French winger had already offered an early warning, hitting a rising shot over the bar as he cut in from the right flank in familiar fashion, before arriving late at the back post to convert Joe Bryan’s devilish cross after the full back had sauntered past Djed Spence, a Fulham academy graduate.

Without Mitrovic, Fulham’s front line had clearly been told to roam freely between the lines and their movement often overwhelmed the Boro back three. Knockaert cut a smart ball back for Josh Onomah, whose speculative shot was parried by Aynsley Pears, before the former Tottenham midfielder contrived to send a free header wide from in front of the far post after being left completely unattended at a corner. Bobby Decordova-Reid, Ivan Caveleiro and Bryan worked a triangle of passes between the Boro defence down the left that left the Portuguese winger through on goal, but Cavaleiro’s finish failed to match the majesty of the move as he drove wastefully over.

Middlesbrough, whose forays forward had been sporadic barring an early Spence shot that whistled wide, almost restored parity with a freak equaliser on the half hour. Hayden Coulson’s attempt at a cross ballooned off the body of Denis Odoi and looped over Marek Rodak only to come back off the crossbar with the Fulham goalkeeper beaten. That seemed to spark some belief in the visitors as a largely isolated Rudy Gestede, selected over the in-form Ashley Fletcher up front, sent a free header over and a mazy Patrick Roberts run came to naught.

Woodgate’s charges were far more ambitious in the second period as the pattern of a previously one-sided contest changed. The organisational qualities of Kevin McDonald, back marshalling things from a defensive midfield position, and a combination of composure and physicality from Michael Hector helped Fulham preserve their lead despite Boro’s growing ambition. Rodak made a late save from Paddy McNair, whilst the excellent Hector also timed a tackle perfectly as Coulson burst in the box before a succession of late corners frayed the nerves in stoppage time. Middlesbrough seemed far more threatening once Fletcher had been summoned from the bench for the final ten minutes, but couldn’t muster a leveller.

Fulham fashioned chances of their own to make the game safe. A Bryan daisycutter was well gathered by Pears at his near post and the home side thought they had doubled their lead when a diving Odoi glanced home Cavaleiro’s free-kick, but the Belgian was ruled marginally offside by a very late flag from the assistant referee. Knockaert then beat his man on the outside and drilled a low cross fractionally beyond the sliding Decordova-Reid, but Fulham had just about done enough to end Middlesbrough’s five match unbeaten run.

FULHAM (4-3-3): Rodak; Odoi, Bryan, Hector, Ream; McDonald, Onomah (Arter 79), Cairney (Johansen 68); Knockaert (Mawson 90+2), Cavaleiro, Decordova-Reid. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Christie, de la Torre, Stansfield.

BOOKED: McDonald.

GOAL: Knockaert (7).

MIDDLESBROUGH (3-4-2-1): Pears; Howson, McNair, Fry; Spencer, Coulson, Clayton (Nmecha 80), Saville (Fletcher 80); Roberts, Tavernier (Wing 61); Gestede. Subs (not used): Mejías, Wood, Johnson, Liddle.


REFEREE: David Webb (Lancashire).


Up next: Middlesbrough (h)

That scoreless draw up at the Riverside Stadium seems a lot longer ago than October. It was a strange sort of game – utterly disrupted by the early sending off of Marek Rodak, now firmly established as Scott Parker’s number one, where Fulham might have felt a little aggrieved not to have grabbed all three points despite their numerical disadvantage. Middlesbrough, who badly lacked both penetration and creativity as the natives appeared restless with Jonathan Woodgate, looked set for a long season at the wrong end of the table.

Boro, though, are booming now. One thing Steve Gibson gives his managers is plenty of time, unlike most owners in the modern game. Woodgate was reassured by his chairman’s regular encouragement, even after winning just two of his first seventeen matches in charge, and gradually things began to click. Confidence surged after a key victory at Barnsley and another impressive success at Charlton sparked a run of four straight wins over the festive period that saw a manager under pressure suddenly clutching the Championship manager of the month award.

Woodgate has placed plenty of faith in youngsters, befitting the club’s history of bringing through talent from one of the country’s most successful academy set-ups. Young Aynsley Pears, whose only first team experience prior to Darren Randolph getting injured in October came in non-league football, has been a revelation in goal. Djed Spence, who came through the Fulham academy before moving on last summer, has shone since being introduced at right back and he could well have another former Fulham youngster playing in front of him at Craven Cottage tonight after Patrick Roberts joined on loan from Manchester City. Early signs of the link-up between the two have been encouraging.

Middlesbrough’s impressive revival has gone under the radar somewhat given how congested the top half of the Championship is at present. Remarkably, since a 4-0 hammering at Leeds in November, they have taken 17 points from a possible 24 – the best in the division. Only a late, late Derby equaliser prevented them from making it five wins in a row last weekend – and Woodgate’s men head to London with the momentum, so crucial in this crazy league, right behind them.

There’s no doubt Boro have plenty of quality. Dael Fry remains one of the most underrated centre halves in the league and young Nathan Wood, even at the tender age of 17, has the hallmarks of a player who could go all the way. The teenager is in line for a start, especially with Middlesbrough struggling for fit centre halves at the moment. The likes of Hayden Coulson, Marcus Tavernier, George Saville and Roberts – who were all rested for the FA Cup replay at Spurs in midweek – should come back into the side. The visitors might still be without star striker Britt Assombalonga, who has a history of troubling Fulham, but Woodgate can now call on the fit-again Rudy Gestede and Lucas Nmecha. There’s also the in-form Ashley Fletcher, who has found the net in both of his last two away league games.

Fulham have been particularly flaky this season. Just when a humbling defeat at the hands of Reading on New Year’s Day appeared to leave the automatic promotion positions out of reach, a gritty win at Hull left the tantalising prospect of catching the top two, who surrendered points at the same time, back on the table. That victory on Humberside was built on a clean sheet – with Michael Hector enjoying an promising league debut – and a doggedness rarely seen under Parker this season, with the manager leaving the likes of Tom Cairney and Harry Arter on the bench as the Whites produced the perfect away performance.

The big question will be how Parker decides to deal with the untimely absence of Aleksandar Mitrovic, who will be sidelined for at least three weeks after injuring his ankle ligaments in the second half at Hull. The absence of their talisman, who has scored 18 goals in 26 games, could be devastating as the Whites look to mount a promotion push – especially as Aboubakar Kamara, who deputised for the Serbian so ably against QPR earlier in the campaign, is also nursing an ankle problem. Parker will probably ask Bobby Decordova-Reid to fill a more advanced role, although Ivan Cavaleiro – who celebrated his permanent move to Craven Cottage with a stunning winner at Hull last weekend – operated as a false nine in the FA Cup win over Aston Villa. The romantic choice would be continuing Jay Stansfield’s exceptional start to his Fulham career, although the 17 year-old is more likely to start on the bench.

Parker still has questions to ponder over the make up of the rest of his side. Denis Odoi did well to shackle Jarrod Bowen at the KCOM and could continue at left back, especially with a host of clubs apparently pursuing an interest in Joe Bryan, whilst Terence Kongolo’s loan move from Huddersfield has probably come too late for him to slot straight into the back four this evening. The midfield might be missing Harrison Reid’s bite, but Kevin McDonald shored things up impressively at Hull after an iffy start and his experience could be vital on a night when Fulham may need to be both patient and streetwise against tricky opponents.

MY FULHAM XI (4-3-3): Rodak; Christie, Odoi, Hector, Ream; McDonald, Onomah, Cairney; Knockaert, Cavaleiro, Decordova-Reid. Subs: Norman, S. Sessegnon, Mawson, Arter, Johansen, Kebano, Stansfield.