Ryan Babel’s sensational second-half strike left Cardiff facing an uphill task for Premier League safety following their 1-0 defeat at Fulham.
Babel struck a first-time curling effort from 25 yards which gave Neil Etheridge no chance to settle a game of little quality at Craven Cottage.
The Dutchman’s moment of magic proved a rare bright spark for either side, with Cardiff lacking the intensity expected from Neil Warnock’s side, who badly needed a win to keep themselves on Brighton’s tail, and an eight-minute, first-half stoppage after Denis Odoi was knocked unconscious did little to aid the tempo.
However, having failed to force a save of note out of Fulham goalkeeper Sergio Rico until the final five minutes, when Sean Morrison and Danny Ward both went close, they are now four points adrift of safety with two games remaining after Brighton drew 1-1 with Newcastle, and realistically needing to win both of their final two games against Crystal Palace and Manchester United.
With Fulham enjoying fine wins over Everton and Bournemouth in their last two outings and Cardiff desperate for three points, the scrappy, slow first half which developed may have surprised both benches.
It took 12 minutes for either ‘keeper to make a save, when Aleksandar Mitrovic’s 20-yard shot on the turn was kept out at full-stretch by Etheridge.
Odoi was hurt when Maxime Le Marchand’s boot struck him in the chest and knocked him clean out midway through the first half, with the defender carried from the pitch with his neck in a support following a lengthy stoppage, after which Fulham continued on the front foot.
Whatever words Warnock had for his players at half-time did little to knock some life into them, with Rico a passenger before the break and similarly untroubled once the second half got under way.
Four minutes into the second 45, Mitrovic should have scored when Tom Cairney, cutting in from the right, showed excellent composure to pick him out unmarked, but the striker turned his low pass well over from 15 yards.
The game continued with the same attritional approach from before the break, until 11 minutes from time when Babel stepped up to finally inject some quality.
Cyrus Christie made a superb 40-yard run out of defence and laid the ball back for the Dutchman, who curled a shot from the right channel away from Etheridge and into the far corner.
Late on Morrison and Ward both turned crosses goalwards but made life too easy for Rico, who saved both comfortably, and he was again able to hold on to the ball when Morrison nodded a glorious chance straight into his hands in the final seconds.
Fulham have been relegated from the Premier League with five games still to play after being hammered by Watford at Vicarage Road.
The Cottagers needed to avoid defeat to put off their inevitable demotion for another week and were level at half-time, Ryan Babel having equalised after Abdoulaye Doucoure’s stunning opener for the Hornets.
However, second-half goals from Will Hughes, Troy Deeney and Kiko Femenia condemned them to an immediate return to the Championship.
Fulham spent more than £100m on 12 new players last summer but the quality has been lacking all season.
Their players looked dejected as the final whistle confirmed they will be playing Championship football alongside Huddersfield next season, making 2 April the earliest date two clubs have been relegated from the Premier League.
Fulham had, briefly, looked like delaying the drop, when Babel rounded Ben Foster to coolly equalise from Ryan Sessegnon’s clever pass 12 minutes before half-time.
Babel, Sessegnon and Aleksandar Mitrovic all had chances to put the Cottagers ahead in a dangerous spell after that but the break halted their momentum and they fell apart in the second half.
Parker will hope that they can restore pride in their final five games before another hard season in the Championship.
Second-half substitute Andre Gray has tormented Fulham in the past and once again he proved the difference, his bristling pace and direct running causing huge problems for the visitors’ fragile backline.
A mesmerising piece of skill from Gray set up Deeney for a tap in on 69 minutes before he slipped a pass to Femenia to round off the victory shortly afterwards.
Those goals put the gloss on two earlier strikes from Doucoure and Hughes, the latter a thunderbolt volley from the edge of the box that flew into the top of Sergio Rico’s net.
Watford have not lost at home since Boxing Day and, with six games to play, will have their sights set on finishing as best of the rest behind the runaway top six.
I don’t mind admitting that I was flagging a bit last night. The monotony of the Premier League was beginning to wear me down. It has been something of a traumatic season. The loss of Slavisa Jokanovic was keenly felt because of the identity and sumptuous football that he got Fulham playing and, of course, the magical run towards the end of the season and an unforgettable day out at Wembley. The realisation that this squad was plucky and determined rather than properly equipped to be competitive at this level meant that grim gallows humour has been the order of the day for a few weeks now.
It was no surprise that the gut-wrenching defeat by Spurs was followed by the quick concession of a couple of goals to Glenn Murray last night. Whatever Claudio Ranieri does – and the defence has become a lot better since he took charge – our back line seems keep on making damaging mistakes. Murray could have had a first-half hat-trick and it wasn’t as if Brighton played us off the park or he was making magnificent runs. The basics of getting goalside and shutting down crosses from the flanks are honed at a young level: it is as our defenders have forgotten everything they have been taught.
The comeback was as glorious as the weather was icy. There was simply no inkling of it coming. Jean-Michael Seri has had his detractors since that summer move from Nice but he was outstanding in the middle of the field. Some of the one-touch stuff Fulham played in the second half was reminiscent of that Jokanovic side at its silky best. I am still firmly of the belief that our best side includes Tom Cairney, whose cameo on the right side of midfield injected some class into proceedings, but whether Ranieri will be willing to jettison his back five to fit Fulham’s two best passers into the team remains to be seen.
It does give Fulham’s previously rather forlorn fight against the drop a real shot in the arm. There’s no question that Aleksandar Mitrovic is one of the best strikers in the division and it is clear that he relishes a scrap. His first goal last night was a throwback to goals strikers snaffled in the 1940s and 1950s and the second was a great illustration of his desire and aerial ability as he beat Mat Ryan when Lewis Dunk was blatantly backing into him. He clearly has a great understanding with Ryan Babel, who continues to look a smart acquisition, and Luciano Vietto built on an encouraging cameo at Brighton with probably his most complete display in a Fulham shirt.
I do hope there is a change of emphasis in Ranieri’s strategy going forward. It is clear that he is the archetypal Italian coach who wants his teams to be cautious and hard to beat, but barring a phalanx of defenders arriving at Motspur Park in the closing days of the transfer window, I don’t think this Fulham squad has the personnel to play the way he would like. Instead, we are packed with ball-players and attacking talent – the route to safety could well be found by allowing our artisans to express themselves.
The last time the Whites came back from 2-0 down to win a Premier League fixture was that incredible revival against Manchester City that sparked the Great Escape under Roy Hodgson. Last night, reminded me a bit more of that feverish fightback against Tottenham at Loftus Road capped by Sylvain Legwinski’s injury-time winner. Momentum is vital in a relegation run-in – we can’t afford to waste ours now.
Sergio Rico: Had a jittery start when he failed to gather a sighter from Philip Billing that was drilled at him from long range, but looked assured after that. The Spanish goalkeeper wasn’t called upon for long periods – making only routine stops for the remainder of the first half – but produced a couple of key saves to preserve Fulham’s lead late on. Tried to release Mitrovic with a couple of long punts upfield without success. 6
Denis Odoi: Looked in control again at the heart of Fulham’s back three with another confident display against a physical and direct Huddersfield side. Dealt with a number of long balls forward easily and at times in the second half sparked some Fulham attacks with a few bursts forward with the ball from deep. 6
Alfie Mawson: Delivered another composed performance before being struck down by a knee injury at half-time. By the sounds of Claudio Ranieri’s post-match comments, it could be quite serious. That is just what Fulham don’t need at a time that Mawson, the organiser amongst those three centre halves, is beginning to become the kind of leader at the back that we all envisaged he would be after his arrival from Swansea. 6
Tim Ream: The American appears well suited to Ranieri’s tactical switch as he looks less vulnerable to the pace of opposition attacks with two colleagues alongside him. Being the spare man in a back three also allows his confidence on the ball to come to the fore, although some of his longer balls missed their target yesterday. 6
Cyrus Christie: Provided some real energy down the right flank, becoming far more influential as an attacking option as Fulham upped their game in the second half. Might have scored when he sneaked into the penalty area on the blind side of the Huddersfield defence early on but appeared to be put off his header by Terence Kongolo’s late jump. You can’t fault his work rate and Christie got into several good positions in the second half. 7
Joe Bryan: A much more encouraging performance from the left wing-back. Offered a real threat after the break with numerous raids forward. One cross created a great chance for Mitrovic, another led indirectly to the penalty and Bryan could have scored himself had his own shot carried a little more conviction. Arguably his strongest showing in a Fulham shirt to date. 7
Calum Chambers: Another whole-hearted display at the base of the Fulham midfield. Seemed a little crowded out in the first period as Huddersfield’s five-man midfield nullified any prolonged spells of possession that Fulham enjoyed, but gave some real ballast in the second half as the home side poured forward. He might not be the most technically gifted but Chambers has found a role for himself in this side and gives 100%. You know he will be badly missed against Arsenal on New Year’s Day. 6
Jean-Michael Seri: A frustrating afternoon for the Ivorian, whose 45 minutes were summed up by an added ferocity to his play than any real quality. Like most of the Fulham midfield, he struggled to get any rhythm when in possession and was fortunate to escape with only a yellow card after a late tackle on Florent Hadergjona. It was telling that Fulham found more cohesiveness after Seri was sacrificed at half-time. 5
Luciano Vietto: The Argentine was a surprise inclusion in the starting eleven after not really getting a look in to date under Claudio Ranieri. He drifted intelligently around the pitch, but looked lightweight against some of Huddersfield’s robust challenges. Still created a couple of excellent openings either side of half-time – his deep cross for Christie fashioned the game’s first real chance and he helped to play in Bryan after the break. 6
Tom Cairney: The returning captain was largely on the periphery until he was moved into his more natural central midfield role after Ranieri’s reshuffle at half time. Orchestrated the play from deep for much of the second period, finding pockets of space to play defence-splitting passes. His role in the winning goal seems a little under-appreciated. Cairney showed quite awareness to capitalise on Billing’s eagerness to shoot from long range, seize the loose ball and set Ryan Sessegnon away. 7
Aleksandar Mitrovic: It feels like we’ll soon run out of superlatives for the Serbian number nine. Battled throughout, despite being isolated for long periods against Huddersfield’s three centre backs, and fighting a 39 degree fever. It seemed as though it could be another one of those days when he missed two decent first half chances with his head and then was denied by a stunning save from Lossl. Showed great professional to encourage Kamara after he was robbed of the chance to take the penalty himself and then spared the French forward’s blushes by finding the perfect finish in the first minute of added time. 8
Maxime Le Marchand: The French defender delivered a low-key but crucial display as a half-time substitute for the injured Alfie Mawson. Calm in possession and excellent in terms of his positioning some of Le Marchand’s longer-range passing helped Fulham up the tempo during the second half. 6
Aboubakar Kamara: Where to start with that? I love Kamara for the energy and physicality he brings to the side and it is possible to agree with Mitrovic that the Frenchman changed the complexion of the game by giving Fulham more of an attacking threat after the break, but his self-indulgence in grabbing the ball for the penalty and refusing to let go belonged in the playground rather than the Premier League. It could have been season-defining rather than merely embarrassing and should be severely punished. 5
Ryan Sessegnon: The teenager, seemingly still not fully fit after his groin injury, was set to come on at the break until the extent of Mawson’s injury was revealed. Instead, he had to settle for a fifteen minute cameo, but still had a decisive influence on proceedings. Created three chances in his brief time on the field and could have scored when he almost sneaked in at the near post. Saved the best for last with an intelligent run inside to drag the Huddersfield defence out of position and produced a ball reminiscent of his Wembley one to put Mitrovic in the clear. 7
A tactical tweak from Claudio Ranieri helped Fulham keep their first clean sheet of the season as they claimed a valuable point at St. James’ Park after a scrappy stalemate with Newcastle United. Ranieri played an extra centre back to strengthen his leaky defence and Fulham successfully nullified Rafa Benitez’s ponderous side as the Magpies failed to register a single shot on target. The visitors might have won it at the end with Aleksandar Mitrovic seeing his shot blocked by the arm of Jamal Lascalles and substitute Aboubakar Kamara running in on goal at the death.
Mitrovic, making his first return to St. James’ Park since making his loan move to Craven Cottage permanent in the summer, was adamant that he should have had a penalty after Lascalles threw himself in front of his close-range effort but the Serbian striker was a terribly isolated figure for much of the afternoon. He might have done better with the game’s first chance but Martin Dubravka got his angles right to save a tame shot. Dubravka, who almost passed the ball straight to Mitrovic three minutes from time when he dawdled in possession, was then indebted to Lascalles for stopping Kamara’s storming run with a superb sliding tackle.
All that drama at the death was out of a character with an otherwise soporific encounter. The first half was woefully short on quality, with both sides giving the ball away far too easily. Sergio Rico was largely untroubled in the Fulham goal save for the odd punch, although he saved his best right hander for Alfie Mawson’s cheek just after the half hour when a mix-up in the visitors’ defence nearly presented Newcastle with a rare sight of goal. Denis Odoi produced the timeliest of interventions to nod clear at the back post with Ayoze Perez poised to turn home Lascalles’ header from a Ki Sung-Yeung free-kick.
Newcastle probed patiently in the second period as Fulham sat deeper, but they gradually began to run out of ideas. The loudest the home crowd got was in barracking Martin Atkinson for waving away three penalty appeals, the most convincing of which saw Joe Bryan seem to pull down substitute Kenedy at the far post. Bryan almost made the most of his reprieve when he fired across the face of goal and wide from just inside the box after latching onto a clever Mitrovic lay-off. The home side’s clearest chances came from set plays and Fabian Schar spurned the best of them heading a corner from Matt Ritchie onto the roof of the net.
Fulham’s first clean sheet took them level on points with Huddersfield, who they face over the festive period in what looks like a crunch encounter at Craven Cottage, but it was a measure of how close they came in the closing stages that the point felt like something of a disappointment. They defended manfully, with Alfie Mawson, Tim Ream and Odoi outstanding frequently throwing their bodies in front of the ball, and there were none of the catastrophic errors that have characterised their return to the top flight. Ranieri spoke earlier this week about his desire to build his side from the back and such solidity will be needed in the weeks ahead if Fulham are to climb out of the relegation zone.
NEWCASTLE UNITED (4-4-1-1): Dubravka; Manquillo (Yedlin 84), Dummett, Schar, Lascalles; Ki Sung-Yueng, Diame, Atsu (Kenedy 72), Ritchie; Perez; Rondon. Subs (not used): Woodman, Fernandez, Hayden, Joselu.
FULHAM (3-4-2-1): Rico; Odoi, Mawson, Ream; Christie, Bryan, Chambers, Seri; Cairney (Ayite 82), Schurrle (Kamara 76); Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Le Marchand, McDonald, Johansen, Vietto.
BOOKED: Kamara, Seri.
REFEREE: Martin Atkinson (West Yorkshire).