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.’
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.
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.
This was a strange – and gloriously gripping – game. Fulham would justifiably leave frustrated with a point – despite having come from behind twice – but Lee Bowyer’s Charlton, who are making a habit of surprising opponents on their return to the Championship, would have felt they were good value for the draw as well.
The Addicks certainly surprised Fulham with an adventurous approach from the off, setting Scott Parker’s side on the back foot without managing to carve out a clear opening. The Whites boss had made two changes from the midweek mauling of Reading at the Madjeski Stadium, but that seemed to stall the momentum gained from that performance. Steven Sessegnon returned at right back but his shaky performance underlined that, for all his undoubted promise, the teenager still has a lot to learn at this level.
Charlton may been without the services of striker Lyle Taylor, but they created the better chances after absorbing plenty of patient possession football from the hosts. Former Fulham midfielder Darren Pratley should have opened the scoring but could only direct his header straight at Marcus Bettinelli, who also thwarted the lively Jonny Williams after a swift Charlton counter.
Referee Keith Stroud waved away a strong penalty shout when Aleksandar Mitrovic looked to have been hauled down by Tom Lockyer and the Serbian striker then headed over the bar from being found by a beautiful chip from Stefan Johansen, but it was little surprise when the visitors got the goal their enterprise deserved four minutes before the break. Jake Forster-Caskey was given far too much time to cross from the left and Chris Solly leapt under little pressure to cushion the ball down for Conor Gallagher, whose low shot trickled under Bettinelli.
Parker made radical changes at half-time, hauling off Sessegnon and replacing an injured Harry Arter with the composed Harrison Reed as he went to an experimental back three. The tactical switch did the trick as Fulham looked much more threatening with Bobby Decordova-Reid offering support to a previously isolated Mitrovic. The on-loan Cardiff forward nearly made an immediate impact but drove wide from range, although an effort from distance did level matters ten minutes after the interval.
Decordova-Reid had a hand in the equaliser as well, as his precise pass allowed Ivan Cavaleiro to roam infield from the right and the Portuguese winger crashed an unstoppable effort past the otherwise impregnable Dillon Phillips from 20 yards. The relief around Craven Cottage was tangible, but Fulham’s fragility at the back soon set them back once again.
The home side had ample opportunities to clear their lines from a corner but couldn’t get out of the box and Macauley Bonne climbed above Alfie Mawson to loop a header over Bettinelli and restore Charlton’s advantage. That set the stage for a rip-roaring final half an hour as Fulham poured forward in search of an equaliser.
They rattled the woodwork three times in quick succession. The first was fortuitous as Joe Bryan’s overhit cross almost embarrassed Phillips, but Mitrovic perhaps should have done better than find the crossbar when found by low crosses from Knockaert and Johansen.
The equaliser did arrive just after the hour mark as Mitrovic showed commendable quick thinking to scoop the ball over a grounded goalkeeper from close range after Phillips had pulled off another stunning save to keep Tom Cairney’s flying header. Charlton almost went straight up the other end and scored again, with Bettinelli producing an excellent stop of his own to deny substitute Jonathan Leko.
Fulham laid siege to the visitors’ goal in the final stages but couldn’t find a winner – even during seven minutes of second half stoppage time. Phillips was to the fore in Charlton’s resistance, whilst Lockyer and Jason Pearce fought a physical battle with Mitrovic that referee Stroud struggled to control. The goalkeeper made a string of fine saves, first positioning himself perfectly to pluck Decordova-Reid’s near post header out of the air and then turning aside the lively forward’s low shot after a dangerous one-two with Johansen.
The finest save of them all came right at the start of added time when he somehow denied Decordova-Reid, sliding in at the far post from three yards out, with the goal gaping. Fulham’s final opportunity was a central free-kick some 25 yards out that was mystifyingly curled over by Mawson when Cairney or Knockaert appeared far saner takers. Victory would have taken Fulham top, but Parker’s men will need to cut out the silly defensive mistakes if they are to threaten the automatic promotion places.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Bettinelli; S. Sessegnon (Decordova-Reid 45), Bryan, Mawson, Ream; Arter (Reed 45), Johansen (Onomah 87), Cairney; Knockaert, Cavaleiro, Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Rodak, Odoi, Le Marchand.
Parker’s side moved to fourth in the table following their comprehensive win over the Royals, which was sealed by three goals in seventeen first half minutes. The Fulham boss was particularly pleased that the Whites managed to follow up Friday night’s win over Wigan Athletic with arguably a much more complete display.
He told his post-match press conference:
I’m delighted with the performance first and foremost. But I’ve been sat in this position probably over the last four or five weeks delighted with the performance. It’s just the result that’s been missing a little bit, in the sense of a sucker punch at Sheffield Wednesday, and West Brom as well where we dominated large parts.
But the last two matches the result has been there. I understand that that’s what everyone ultimately looks at, but tonight I thought we were first class from start to finish. First 30 minutes we were devastating, I thought. They had a man sent off but even prior to that I felt we really stamped our authority on the game and showed that quality.
I think when we play like we did first 30 minutes, we’re a team that’s going to be very hard to deal with. Even when they had 11 men it was difficult for them. We moved the ball very quickly, we moved it with an intensity, and we were clinical in the final third. We’ve worked a lot over the last few weeks on getting that cutting edge, and the efforts the boys have been putting in paid off tonight.
Parker was full of praise for striker Aleksandar Mitrovic, who grabbed a first-half brace to put the game well beyond Reading, and he believes the Serbian striker should be targeting the Championship golden boot.
He’s got a chance. Mitro needs to understand what his base is and what his platform is. His platform is a hard work ethic for the team. Out of possession he’s the one who sets it about, and I think if that’s his go-to every single game then I’ve no doubt opportunities will come and he’ll score goals. That’s a big challenge for Mitro. He’s a top forward who we’re absolutely buzzing to have at this football club, and he’ll be pivotal to what we do this year.