By Morgan Phillips
The first few weeks of 2018 have confirmed Fulham’s right to be considered one of the top teams in the Championship.
First at Middlesbrough, then at Barnsley Ryan Sessegnon contrived to send the travelling fans into delirium. At home the pounding of the unfortunate Burton Albion was followed by the narrow defeat of Nottingham Forest. Fulham’s string of victories ended at Bolton, but the hard won point from that match kept the club in a strong position.
The game at Barnsley had a Groundhog Day moment. The home side dominated the first half and were leading 1-0 when, just before the interval, Dimitri Tavare responded violently to a foul by Stefan Johansen and received a red card. Tavare might have escaped with a yellow for pushing Stefan in the back but he did it so fiercely that there was a dangerous collision of heads with another player.
The dismissal meant that Barnsley had to sacrifice a striker in order to bring on a defender. Inevitably Fulham supporters remembered the Ipswich game at the beginning of January when a similar act of revenge by Jordan Spence destroyed Mick McCarthy’s hopes of victory.
Though Barnsley had impressed up to Tavare’s expulsion, they had also pushed their luck. The Whites’ brilliant keeper Marcus Bettinelli seemed to have been obstructed as Liam Lindsay scored, and when the referee judged that a foul on Sessegnon had occurred just outside the penalty area Fulham supporters saw it differently.
Immediately after the interval right back Ryan Fredericks created the equaliser. His fine solo effort bounced off the upright allowing Ryan Sessegnon to score. Then Matt Targett, fresh from Southampton, combined well with Neeskens Kebano, who almost put Fulham ahead.
The ten men of Barnsley held out, with a certain amount of time-wasting particularly by the keeper, until the 92nd minute when Kevin McDonald bundled the ball over the line. It may not have been goal of the month but the acting captain deserved the kudos and his match-winner removed any lingering grievance over the events of the first half.
Three minutes later Neeskens Kebano raced through the weary Barnsley defence. Everyone missed his centre except the alert Ryan Sessegnon, who scored his sixth January goal. This victory put Fulham into the play-off places at the expense of Sheffield United.
The club sought to reassure fans that the continued absence of Tom Cairney was the result of a knee injury and not a ploy to facilitate his transfer to another club. This message was extremely welcome, as was the last minute arrival of Newcastle striker Aleksander Mitrovic. According to Alyson Rudd in the Times:
‘The story of his loan move from Newcastle United feels more like a scene from “Mission Impossible”.’ I hope the title does not relate to Fulham’s chances of promotion.’
Any foreboding that the excitement of January might be followed by anti-climax in February was dissipated by the 2-0 home victory over Nottingham Forest. Matt Targett impressed in his home debut, as did the burly Petrovic, a second half substitute, though the goals came from Lucas Piazon and Stefan Johansen. Piazon’s fierce shot should perhaps have been saved by goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon, but Stefan deserved his late solo triumph.
Supporters fans rightly voted Marcus Bettinelli Man of the Match for his double (or was it triple?) save that drove Nottingham Forest to despair.
At Bolton Matt Target was again prominent, and his neat header gave Fulham the lead in the fourth minute after some astute play from Sessegnon and Piazon. The home side’s response showed that one goal was insufficient, so in the second half Slavisa Jokanovic sent on Abou Kamara, Petrovic and finally Tom Cairney, hoping to seal the victory.
The new line-up showed potential but ironically it was a handball by Mitrovic that led to Bolton’s equaliser. Wanderers’ goalkeeper Ben Alnwick sent the free kick high into the Fulham half where it was helped on to Adam Le Fondre. His trusty left foot thumped the ball past Bettinelli.
Bolton have kept alive the traditional long ball, a tactic which seems to discomfit Fulham defenders. In October 2017 the Wanderers used it to a secure a 1-1 draw at Craven Cottage when Alnwick’s clearance set up Sammy Ameobi.
Saturday the 17th February saw the first of six vital matches against teams also challenging for promotion. Aston Villa had won seven games in a row but could not overcome Fulham at the Cottage. The winner came in the 52nd minute when Fredericks’s cross was turned into the net by (almost inevitably) Ryan Sessegnon.
Fulham’s second was described by the gentleman who sits behind me as the goal of the season. It was certainly the strangest. After Petrovic was penalised for a foul on Axel Tuanzebe near the by-line, keeper Sam Johnstone’s free kick landed at the feet of Floyd Ayite standing unmarked in the centre circle. Without hesitation the Frenchman projected the ball into the empty net.
What will happen next in this extraordinary season?
The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and unless specifically stated are not necessarily those of Hammersmith & Fulham Council.
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