Fulham’s fabulous fightback restores belief

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.

Fulham 1-0 Huddersfield Town: Player ratings

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

Substitutes:

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

Fulham’s first clean sheet secures precious point

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.

BOOKED: Kenedy.

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).

ATTENDANCE: 51,237

Fulham cruise past Millwall on night of firsts

It was a night of Fulham firsts at the New Den as Slavisa Jokanovic’s much-changed side cruised into the fourth round of the League Cup with a comprehensive win over Millwall. There were first Fulham goals for Joe Bryan, American youngster Luca de la Torre and Cyrus Christie – who scored a thirty-yard screamer with his wrong foot – as well as a first start for 15 year-old midfielder Harry Elliott, the latest teenage sensation off the Motspur Park conveyor belt.

There was also a welcome return for Tim Ream, who made his first start of the season after being sidelined by a troublesome back complaint as part of a reshaped defence. Jokanovic deployed the American defender, who was Fulham’s player of the season last term alongside two other central backs, in an innovative 3-4-3 system that gave Christie and Bryan license to roam forward from wing-back roles. It didn’t take long for Bryan, making his first appearance since being dropped following Fulham’s win over Burnley last month, to remind Jokanovic of his offensive qualities with a beautifully-taken opener.

De la Torre, who shone brightly throughout, found a pocket of space just outside the Millwall box and slipped a lovely ball into the area for the onrushing Bryan, who swept home a finish across Ben Amos and into the far corner from an acute angle. it was just the sort of attacking contribution that Jokanovic seeks from his full-backs and the type of goal that Bryan scored in this competition last year as Bristol City went on a remarkable run to the semi-finals.

The goal galvanised an experimental Fulham side, who could have put the contest to bed well before half-time. Floyd Ayite did well to retrieve a floated cross and tee up de la Torre, who was denied by a smart save from Amos. The midfielder was once again denied by the Millwall keeper later in the half. Then Kevin McDonald, making his hundredth appearance for the Whites, went close to repeating his feat of scoring a spectacular goal against Millwall, as he did last April. The Scottish international took aim from 20 yards and his powerful drive flashed inches wide of goal.

The energetic de la Torre and Bryan combined again just after the half hour to nearly double Fulham’s lead. The tricky Californian midfielder drove at the Millwall defence after seizing on a loose ball, committing a couple of Lions defenders before again freeing Bryan down the left flank. This time the marauding Fulham wing-back went for power and his shot flew high over the bar.

The visitors maintained a high tempo and their attacking intent after the break. After a frustrating first half, Aboubakar Kamara almost laid on a second goal just two minutes after the restart. The French forward fired an inviting cross all the way across for Christie, but the Irish international’s strike whizzed fractionally wide of goal. The Whites didn’t have to wait long to put a bit of clear water between themselves and their Championship opponents – with that crucial second goal coming five minutes later.

Following some patient keepball involving Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa and Bryan, Ayite was afforded far too much space to gallop into down the left and he produced the perfect cut back for de la Torre to pick his spot when left unattended around the penalty spot. It was a memorable moment for the 20 year-old, whose mature display fully vindicated Jokanovic’s decision to offer opportunities to the younger members of the Fulham squad.

What seemed a straightforward success for the Whites was soon thrown into doubt when Millwall raised their level and pulled a goal back with half an hour to play. The home side were briefly enlivened by the lifeline provided when Tom Elliott forced home Shane Ferguson’s corner from a couple of yards out and began to put the Fulham defence under a sustained aerial bombardment.

But the visitors weathered the storm and made sure of a place in round four courtesy of a thunderbolt from the most unlikely of sources. Christie is hardly known for his goalscoring – not least off his left foot – but took advantage of the invitation to cut inside from the right and curl a majestic finish into the bottom corner from the best part of 25 yards. That meant that the intensity of the contest waned a little towards the end, allowing Harvey Elliott, who stepped off the bench just hours after sitting school tests to become the club’s youngest-ever player, to display a few classy touches in a promising cameo as the Whites sauntered through the closing stages.

MILLWALL (4-4-2): Amos; McLaughlin, Wallace, Cooper, Ferguson (Wallace 88); Karacan (Williams 74), Skalak (Romeo 45′), Tunnicliffe, O’Brien; Gregory, T. Elliott. Subs (not used): Martin, Webster, White, Morison.

GOAL: T. Elliott (61).

FULHAM (3-4-3): Rico; S. Sessegnon, Ream (Odoi 62), Le Marchand; Christie, Bryan, McDonald, Anguissa; Kamara, de la Torre (O’Riley 85), Ayite (Elliott 81). Subs (not used): Fabri, Chambers, Cisse, Mitrovic.

GOALS: Bryan (7), de la Torre (52), Christie (68).

REFEREE: Darren Bond (Lancashire).

ATTENDANCE: 5.839

Fulham 2-0 Exeter City: Player ratings

Sergio Rico: A largely straightforward debut for the Sevilla loanee as League Two Exeter rarely posed much of a threat to the Fulham goal. Rico was saved by his far post after being beaten by Matt Jay’s low drive from distance that nearly gave the Grecians an equaliser shortly after the home side had taken the lead, but other than that he barely had a save to make. His distribution was a little shaky, sending a couple of kicks straight out of play, and he flapped at one second half corner. 6

Cyrus Christie: An energetic showing from the Republic of Ireland international, who frequently bombed on from right back to cause problems in the final third. His driving runs were an effective weapon against Exeter, with his fourth minute shot totally surprising Christie Pym and leading to Fulham’s opening goal. Still a little inconsistent with his final ball and probably hasn’t done enough to usurp Timothy Fosu-Mensah for a starting spot against Brighton on Saturday. 7

Ryan Sessegnon: The teenager was deployed at left back after only getting a few minutes as a substitute against Burnley on Sunday and was eager to impress from the off. Sent a couple of shots wide in the first half and looked to supplement the Fulham attack as often as he could. Laid on a couple of good chances for Neeskens Kebano by getting to the by-line after the break and looked full of running until the end. Unlikely to displace Joe Bryan at full back and could face a battle to win his spot back from Luciano Vietto following the Argentine’s excellent outing at the weekend. 7

Alfie Mawson: The summer signing from Swansea’s long-awaited debut was encouraging as he continues his recovery from knee surgery. Resumed his one-time England under-21 international partnership with Calum Chambers at centre back and looked every inch the old-fashioned centre half that Fulham have been lacking. Confident in the air and comfortable with the ball at his feet, it is clear that Mawson will be a fixture in the first time once he has regained that much sharpness. Stayed on for a bit longer than Slavisa Jokanovic had suggested and, barring one moment where he was caught out by Jay, it was an outstanding start in a Fulham shirt. 7

Calum Chambers: An understated display from the Arsenal loanee alongside Mawson. Looked to get on the ball at every opportunity and started a number of attacks from the back. Still a few doubts about his positional sense as he lost track of Exeter’s three forwards on a few occasions, but Chambers did produce a couple of crucial blocks in the second period. Might have gone from one of our first choice options at the beginning of the campaign to a reserve once everyone is fully fit. 6

Ibrahima Cisse: The Guinea international got his opportunity at the base of the Fulham midfield and seems to be more attuned to Jokanovic’s system than he was last season. Not afraid to get a foot in, Cisse now appears able to start moves off with a cute pass or two and this was a much more mature display than some of his early showings in a Fulham shirt. Still makes some questionable decisions at times and surrendered possession far too simply in a dangerous area of the field that almost led to an Exeter equaliser early in the first half. 6

Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa: Plenty to like about the Cameroonian midfielder’s all-action display in a more advanced role than the one has filled on his previous two outings for Fulham. Looked a threat carrying the ball forward from debut and displayed plenty of nice touches and an eye for a pass. One brilliant turn and release sent Ryan Sessegnon scampering to the by-line as his set up a second half chance and Anguissa was eager to get a few shots away, although he should have scored when presented with an open goal after Pym had tipped Stefan Johansen’s free-kick onto the post. 7

Stefan Johansen: The skipper for the evening was unlucky not to cap a strong performance with a goal late on when Pym did well to turn his curling free-kick from just outside the box onto his near post. Seemed to operation in second gear for much of the contest, but still showed touches of the drive and endeavour that characterised his excellent first two seasons at the club. Made the second goal with a beautiful through ball to release Aboubakar Kamara. 7

Neeskens Kebano: The Congolese international was desperate to impress and buzzed away dangerously drifting in from the left flank all night. He will be desperately disappointed to have picked up an ankle injury when his second half shot was blocked by Aaron Martin – and we hope that it is not as serious as it first appeared. Was perhaps trying too hard to force his way back into Jokanovic’s first time plans as he spurned a few good opportunities, but Kebano remains a lively option off the bench. 6

Aboubakar Kamara: The star of the show. The French forward’s enthusiasm has always been infectious and the manner in which he took his two goals illustrated just how much he has improved since those early performances following his arrival from Amiens last summer. Showed brilliant reflexes and agility to volley in the rebound from Christie’s speculative shot as he put Fulham ahead and some of runs from the right flank were particularly intelligent. Kept up his cool when one-on-one early in the second half and may still have significant improvement in him at the age of 23. 7

Rui Fonte: It just hasn’t happened for the Portuguese forward and Fulham and last night’s performance encapsulated why. Fonte struggled to get much change out of the Exeter back three as a lone forward, lacking the physicality to win anything in the air and often dropped so deep that he was behind the play. Toiled manfully, but when he did get an opportunity in the six-yard box, his finish lacked conviction and Pym was able to make a good reaction save. 6

Substitutes:

Luca de la Torre (on for Neeksens Kebano, 74): The American showed a few clever touches in a lively cameo after replacing the unfortunate Kebano for the final fifteen minutes or so. 6

Steven Sessegnon (on for Alfie Mawson, 75): The young defender displayed his versatility by slotting in alongside Chambers at centre back and even ventured forward with a couple of mazy dribbles as he got more first-team minutes under his belt. 6