Reading the Fulham forums and social media on my way back from the Macron Stadium yesterday, I was surprised not to be as downcast as many of the contributors. Given the fact that Bolton’s home form is very impressive and that Phil Parkinson has instigated a mini-revival as they battle doggedly against the drop, I always expected a tough test of the Whites’ incredible start to 2018 – and that is exactly what Slavisa Jokanovic got.
Fulham might have been on a flawess run of the form but it is unrealistic to expect the Whites to be able to steamroller every opponent between now and the end of the season. This result might also prove a useful reality check for the players ahead of the toughest stretch of the fixtures in the whole campaign. Only the most fervent Fulham fan would struggle to concede that Jokanovic’s side were a bit fortunate to beat the likes of Birmingham and Millwall before Christmas and recent games have turned on where Ryan Fredericks’ shot against Barnsley rebounded to and Costil Pantilmon’s catastrophic error in trying to handle Lucas Piazon’s powerful drive. Yesterday, our luck just ran out.
I may be in a minority but I found some of the criticism of Marcus Bettinelli’s goalkeeping more than a little absurd. All of the credit for Bolton’s equaliser has to go to Adam Le Fondre, who was desperate to prove Parkinson wrong for leaving him out of the starting line-up and ran about like a man possessed for the last half an hour. He produced a great incredible finish from with the angle against him that was just too good for Bettinelli. Being the perfectionist that he is, the Fulham keeper will learn from this and look to improve but any analysis of his performance should also include the two terrific saves he made from Zac Clough in the first half – and how he kept out a deflected Le Fondre effort that might have made it 2-1.
For me, the bigger culprit could have been Jokanovic himself. At times, Fulham’s football – especially in the opening twenty minutes yesterday – was sublime and they looked like they could cut through Bolton at will. His decision to replace Lucas Piazon and Rui Fonte after just five minutes of the second half struck me as odd. Presumably, he’d just given a team talk urging his side to continue to play in the same way during the second half and perhaps increase the intensity of their attacking in the final third. It goes against that somewhat to make a double substitution so swiftly.
Had Kamara managed to tuck away that golden chance with his very first touch – having been supplied by Mitrovic – we’d all be hailing the Serbian as a tactical genius. As it was, his intervention badly disrupted Fulham’s rhythm and handed Bolton a chance to get back into the contest. Replacing Fonte, who was struggling to make much of an impression on Bolton’s centre halves the longer the game went on, with one of Mitrovic or Kamara would have made sense. But making those two alterations altered the balance of Fulham’s side and lost the stronghold the visitors had over central midfield, particularly with Ollie Norwood looking below par.
Once Kamara had spurned that opportunity within seconds of coming on, Bolton had their best spell of the game. Don’t get me wrong – Fulham still created enough chances to win three matches, but the superiority of the first half was certainly a thing of the past. In a division as tight as this and, with the manager talking about the need to ruthless, it felt like we let a struggling side off the hook a little.
Fulham also seemed a little reluctant to go for the kill in the first half as well. It seemed strange that just when the Whites had Bolton begging for mercy, they eased off and tried to be professional, both in more conservative passing and the longer it took the visitors to restart the game. Fonte could have killed off the contest when he went through on goal – and the Portuguese forward is probably still thinking about how he didn’t beat Ben Alnwick with that one-on-one. I just hope the memory of Stefan Johansen finding only the side netting after that jinking run across the Wanderers’ penalty area doesn’t rattle around my brain for as long as Chris Martin’s miss at Reading did last May.
Marks out of ten as Fulham had to settle for a point at the Macron Stadium yesterday afternoon …
Marcus Bettinelli: The big debate on the way home last night was whether Bettinelli should have done better with Adam Le Fondre’s extraordinary equaliser. My own view is that to blame him for conceding that strike is exceptionally harsh – the pace and power of the hit would have made it difficult for any goalkeeper. In any case, Bettinelli made a vital save from Le Fondre’s deflected effort shortly afterwards – parrying it away full stretch – and that had already denied Zac Clough twice in the first half to keep Fulham in front. 7
Ryan Fredericks: A mixed afternoon for Fulham’s right back. Looked a real threat going forward in the first half but couldn’t find the crossing consistency to allow the Whites to make too much of the way he was beating the Bolton defence with ease. Faded a little in the second period as the home side pinned Fulham back for a bit after levelling the contest – and was once again unable to supply a game-changing cross as the Whites pushed for a winner late on. 6
Matt Targett: Probably Fulham’s man of the match. Even though he is an adventurous full back in the mould that Slavisa Jokanovic likes, it was still a surprise to see him the first to react to Lucas Piazon’s header back across goal after five minutes. Buried the header beautifully to put the visitors ahead and continued to link up effectively with Ryan Sessegnon throughout. Wasn’t significantly troubled defensively and showed great spirit to come back from being cynically taken out on the touchline by Mark Little. 8
Tomas Kalas: This was a solid outing from the Czech centre half, but you sense that he’s just not as commanding in his second season at Craven Cottage as he was last year. Looked composed on the ball and dealt with most of Bolton’s attacks on the floor, but seemed suspect under the high ball when Wanderers went a bit more direct. Recovered well from a head injury in the second half – but will ultimately be disappointed not to keep a clean sheet. 6
Tim Ream: The American might have expected a warmer welcome back at his old stomping ground than to elbowed in the face and to be booed for his apparent timewasting by then same home fans who all applauded him after the final whistle. Did well to nullify the threat of Clough and Ameobi for most of the contest and distributed the ball well, but looked more than a little vulnerable when the home side pumped long balls forward. 7
Kevin McDonald: Not the stand-in skipper’s most effective game yesterday. He worked the ball around well as ever and provided plenty of energy and organisation, but sometimes found himself ahead of the play – failing to mop up from his usual holding role. A glorious chance arrived at Clough’s feet because of this in the first half. Could be seen exhorting the Fulham side to go again after the Bolton equaliser – which they did, but the Whites couldn’t grab a second. 6
Stefan Johansen: The Norwegian covered plenty of ground once again in the midfield, but struggled a little to get into the contest in the first half. Was far more effective in the second period and seemed to have more of a license to roam once Tom Cairney replaced Oliver Norwood late in the second half. Will be wondering how he failed to score at the death from the brilliant chance that he fashioned for himself with a slalom run right across the penalty area that would have put Ricky Villa to shame had he slotted home the winner. Should have gone across the keeper, but rippled the side netting inside. 6
Ollie Norwood: A rather disappointing display from the Northern Irish midfielder, who struggled to find the precision in his passing or to lift the tempo beyond the pedestrian, which seemed a waste after Fulham’s red-hot start. Several balls went astray and some his supply lacked the incision necessary in the final third, before Norwood seemed to be overwhelmed a little as Bolton grew in confidence after their goal. Was replaced by Tom Cairney as Fulham sought more creativity with time ticking away. 5
Lucas Piazon: A frustrating afternoon for the Brazilian forward, who failed to build on his game-changing display against Nottingham Forest last time out. Piazon started superbly – showing great awarness to guide Ryan Sessegnon’s cross back across goal for Targett’s opener – but gradually drifted out of the contest. Seemed to be a little too lightweight on a day when Bolton snapped into tackles and his usual tricks and flicks never seemed to come off. Wasn’t a surprise when Jokanovic opted to hook him early in the second half. 6
Ryan Sessegnon: You wonder whether the exertions of so much senior football might just be catching up with the 17 year-old again. Even though he looked tired by the end, Sessegnon’s intelligent movement and ceaseless running still looked posed real problems for the home defence – despite the fact that Fulham couldn’t find a way to take home all three points. Crossed brilliantly for Piazon to create the opening goal and went on a couple of mazy dribbles after that. Had a shot bravely blocked by Mark Beevers and looked like he was in right at the end, only for a heavy touch to let him down. 6
Rui Fonte: Unfortunately, the Portuguese forward’s day was summed up by the glaring miss that might have put Fulham on easy street a few minutes after Targett had headed the Whites ahead. He did very well to rid David Wheater of possession and run through on goal but should have left Ben Alnwick with no chance. Made a number of intelligent runs, but was too often easily muscled out of it but Bolton’s tough centre halves. There was an inevitability about his afternoon coming to an early end – with Jokanovic introducing Mitrovic just after the break. 5
Aleksandar Mitrovic (on for Rui Fonte, 51): The Serbian almost had an immediate impact, by supplying a golden opportunity for his fellow substitute Kamara with his first touches of the ball. Might have done better than send a shot on the turn trickling wide with five minutes left, but was disappointingly ineffective for the rest of his time on the pitch. Still looks short of a gallop – and can only benefit from more minutes under his belt. 6
Aboubakar Kamara (on for Lucas Piazon, 51): Livened up the Fulham attack in his own inimitable style, even if he didn’t track back as much as Jokanovic would have wanted. Missed an absolute sitter with his first touch when stabbing Mitrovic’s great pull back wide from six yards out – but you couldn’t fault his effort. The Frenchman’s pace and power caused some issues for the Bolton back line but Fulham couldn’t supply him regularly enough to take advantage. 7
Tom Cairney (on for Ollie Norwood, 74): Encouraging to see the skipper back on the park again after only a couple of days training this week. Immediately gave Fulham that greater creativity and penetration in the final third after replacing Norwood and got the Whites going forward again after they had looked shaky in the aftermath of Bolton’s equaliser. Looked certain to score when he slid in seven yards out in the dying embers only for Wheater to divert the ball behind for a corner. 6
Slavisa Jokanovic was left frustrated by Fulham’s failure to convert the chances that could have extended their winning run to seven games but struck a philosophical note after the Whites’ 1-1 draw at Bolton.
Matt Targett gave Fulham the perfect start inside five minutes at the Macron Stadium – heading in his first goal for the club since signing from Southampton on loan, but Fulham were denied all three points by a world class equaliser from Adam Le Fondre.
Jokanovic told his post-match press conference:
It’s part of football. We came here with the intention to win the game. We opened the game well. We scored one goal, but we could have scored two.
We dominated the game, especially in the first half. From one moment in the second half, they scored their goal, and then they played the game they wanted to play.
Jokanovic was disappointed that Fulham failed to continue their winning run – but felt there were positives to take from the contest.
You cannot dominate for 90 minutes every game. We didn’t play a perfect game, but we still made enough chances to win the game.
We created many chances and tried to find some sort of benefit with our substitutions. We tried to find Aboubakar Kamara and Aleksandar Mitrovic with the ball. But in the end, we tried a lot of chances, but we couldn’t score. That’s it.
At the end, we created enough chances in the first and the second halves to win the game. We got only point today, but we have be ready and keep going for the next game.
A sensational strike from Adam Le Fondre punished Fulham’s failure to finish a hatful of chances as the Whites’ winning run ended in a 1-1 draw at Bolton Wanderers this afternoon.
The former Reading forward, a regular scourge of Fulham in the past, answered Phil Parkinson’s call in the grandest of manners just minutes after stepping off the bench at the Macron Stadium. Marcus Bettinelli stood absolutely no chance with a dipping half volley from the left wing, which flew into the far corner at pace. It was some way for Le Fondre to score his first goal since the season’s opening day.
Until Le Fondre’s wonder goal arrived from nowhere, Fulham looked in complete command. Slavisa Jokanovic’s paid the penalty for failing to build on Matt Targett’s fifth minute opener. The left back headed home Lucas Piazon’s flick from a Ryan Sessegnon cross to get off the mark for the Cottagers but Fulham passed up several opportunities to put the game beyond Bolton.
The clearest of those came two minutes later when Rui Fonte robbed David Wheater and raced clear but placed a tame shot too close to Ben Alnwick. Fulham played plenty of pretty football but couldn’t extend their lead before the break with Sessegnon’s snapshot bravely blocked by Mark Beevers.
Bolton’s best openings came courtesy of their little and large strike partnership: Zac Clough and Sammy Ameobi. Clough forced Bettinelli to tip over a rising drive and then perhaps should have then better than shooting at the Fulham goalkeeper when the former Newcastle forward played him in.
Jokanovic opted to add more attacking options after the break, introducing Aleksandar Mitrovic and Aboubakar Kamara. The Serbian’s double change almost had the desired effect but the Frenchman sidefooted wide from close range after a flowing Fulham move moments after coming on.
In a frustrating second period, Fulham had to weather some serious home pressure after Le Fondre’s stunning intervention. He almost made it two with a deflected drive that Bettinelli did well to parry and then turned provider for Josh Vela, whose long-range effort just cleared the crossbar.
The Whites applied concerted pressure of their own to Alnwick’s goal late but failed to work the Wanderers goalkeeper enough. Mitrovic, who still lacked sharpness, sent a shot on the turn agonisingly wide and Wheater smothered a Kamara shot at source.
The visitors’ best chance arrived two minutes from time. Stefan Johansen’s superb run took him from the right wing to a shooting position six yards out but he shot into the side netting from the acutest of angles with three team mates waiting for a tap in. Fulham will have to rediscover their finishing instincts ahead of Aston Villa’s visit to Craven Cottage next weekend.
BOLTON WANDERERS (4-4-2): Alnwick; Little (Morais 59), Dervite, Wheater, Beevers; Henry, Derik, Robinson, Vela; Ameobi (Walker 89), Clough (Le Fondre 59). Subs (not used): Howard, Burke, Flanagan, A. Taylor.
BOOKED: Little, Henry.
GOAL: Le Fondre (61).
FULHAM (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks, Targett, Kalas, Ream; McDonald, Norwood (Cairney 74), Johansen; Piazon (Kamara 51), R. Sessegnon, Fonte (Mitrovic 51). Subs (not used): Button, Odoi, Christie, Ayite.
GOAL: Targett (5).
REFEREE: Robert Jones (Liverpool).
Slavisa Jokanovic certainly struck the right note earlier this week when he stressed to his players the importance of not taking Bolton Wanderers lightly. Footballers are fallible humans after all – and relaxing a little bit after a six-game unbeaten run might come easily to a few members of the Fulham squad. But the Serbian head coach’s mantra all week at Motspur Park has been about reminding his side not to rest on their laurels. As he said a few weeks ago, nothing is decided in January. Just ask loveable Leeds United.
The other aspect of what is an intriguing contest at the Macron Stadium this afternoon is Bolton’s improving form as they battle against relegation. Like Jokanovic, Phil Parkinson won’t tolerate anything less than 100 per cent commitment to the cause and, operating on a threadbare budget and having just lost the focal point of his attack towards the end of the transfer window, it is a testament to his underrated managerial ability that Wanderers are currently three points above the drop zone, with a game in hand on their relegation rivals. The Trotters have lost just one of their last five fixtures and proven incredibly tough to beat on their own turf, tasting defeat in the league at the Macron only once since September.
Last Friday night against Bristol City, a side who have displayed already this season that their aspirations of playing above the Championship are not at all misplaced, was another clear example of why that Bolton home record exists. Wanderers were defensively disciplined, diligent and very tough to break down. Parkinson also deserves credit for adapting in the aftermath of Madine’s departure, switching from his favoured 4-2-3-1 to an innovative 3-5-1-1 formation that both smothered the visitors’ attacking instincts and posed a real problem for them at the other end of the pitch – with Sammy Ameobi playing behind Nottingham Forest loanee Tyler Walker, the son of ex-England defender Des.
Parkinson has quietly assembled a squad full of real quality at this level. Zach Clough, who also arrived on loan from the City Ground just before the deadline, is back at Bolton and showed glimpses as a substitute against Lee Johnson’s side of the sparkling ability that saw him talked about as the next big thing. Wanderers will likely be able to welcome back the highly-rated West Ham defender Reece Burke after a back injury and the England youth international should help bolster a back four seeking back-to-back clean sheets for only the second time this term.
Bolton are understandably high on confidence with Mark Beevers, who was brilliantly effective during the reverse fixture at Craven Cottage in October, swatting aside the suggestion that Fulham could pass their way around Parkinson’s men this afternoon. Jokanovic’s team found that proposition far too tricky in the reverse fixture – and had to be bailed out by Tom Cairney’s last-gasp header. Parkinson suggested Ameobi could test Fulham’s recent defensive improvement – and given how the Whites’ defence has struggled against forwards of Ameobi’s ilk, it can’t be considered wide of the mark.
Fulham will probably start favourites by dint of their remarkable recent run that has lifted the Londoners into fifth place, but they can’t afford to start believing their good press of late. Jokanovic has a few selection issues to settle, especially if Tom Cairney is fit enough to wear the captain’s armband from the outset after the Scottish midfielder returned to full training on Thursday. With Sheyi Ojo also back following some time on the sidelines, Fulham’s squad is as close to full strength as it has been all season and that makes Jokanovic’s line-up an interesting one to pontificate over.
The most fevered debate will probably come in the forward areas. Aleksandar Mitrovic most be pushing for a start after his debut changed the direction of a game against Nottingham Forest that might have been drifting towards a draw before his introduction. That might be both harsh on Rui Fonte – and a potential mistake, if Jokanovic’s intention is to try and move the ball quickly on the floor in the final third. Lucas Piazon, whose goal broke Forest’s stubborn resilience, should continue from the right with Sessegnon operating on the left wing. The exclusions of the likes of Neeskens Kebano, Floyd Ayite and Aboubakar Kamara might leave Jokanovic with possibility the strongest substitutes’ bench he’s ever had during his Fulham tenure.
MY FULHAM XI (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks, Targett, Kalas, Ream; McDonald, Norwood, Johansen; Piazon, R. Sessegnon, Mitrovic. Subs: Button, S. Sessegnon, Cairney, Kebano, Ayite, Fonte, Kamara.