By Morgan Phillips
Mid-season matches can be as dull as the weather but this January has illuminated west London.
Previously it seemed that West Bromwich Albion and Leeds United had exclusive rights to the top two places in the Championship table but now they both having stumbled are facing a serious challenge from Fulham and Brentford, thanks in no small part to the goals of Aleksandar Mitrovic and Brentford’s Ollie Watkins.
Fulham’s home match against Middlesbrough was brought forward to a Friday evening, allowing the Northerners scant time to recover from their Cup defeat in mid-week, and the home side took the lead in the sixth minute.
Anthony Knockaert, who had already squandered one opportunity, was well placed to convert Joe Bryan’s low centre from the left.
An emphatic victory looked imminent, but subsequent events reminded supporters of Mitrovic’s absence through injury.
Ivan Cavaleiro sent the ball high into the stands, the unmarked Josh Onomah misdirected his header from a corner and Tom Cairney applied a tame finish to a textbook move. Middlesbrough had fewer chances but Hayden Coulson’s deflected centre did hit the Fulham crossbar.
In the second half the visitors’ renewed strength caused alarm in the Fulham defence and among the supporters. Reassurance came when Cavaleiro’s free kick allowed Denis Odoi a dream goal.
Odoi had already performed his celebratory backflips when it was realised that the referee’s assistant was flagging offside. The decision looked dubious – further evidence that the offside law needs redrafting. Presumably it is meant to penalise attackers who have an unfair advantage and that did not apply to Odoi.
As a consequence, supporters were kept in suspense until the final whistle. Middlesbrough tried hard but Marek Rodak never had to make a meaningful save.
The goalless draw which occurred mid-week at Charlton is not a result that one associates with Fulham, but it underlines the recent improvement in the club’s defence and the need for Mitrovic’s swift return.
The home side showed little ambition, achieving only one shot on target compared with the visitors’ four. All five efforts went straight to the keepers.
With Mitrovic still absent and Cairney on the bench, it was a tense-looking Tim Ream who led the team out at the Etihad Stadium for the FA Cup tie.
He lost the toss and almost immediately lost Fulham the match. The defence had clearly been instructed to play from the back despite facing one of the best and fastest teams in Britain, and an early exchange between Ream and Rodak nearly ended in disaster.
Shortly afterwards, a weak clearance allowed Gabriel Jesus to surge towards goal. Tim tried to grab his shoulder earning a red card and a penalty. Nor did he prevent City from scoring for the kick was converted by Ilkay Gundogan.
A goal ahead and with an obvious advantage the home team played some exhibition football culminating in the 19th minute with Bernardo Silva bamboozling the visitors’ defence to score. Fortunately, a home goal did not occur every ten minutes thereafter. Fulham saw little of the ball, but City became careless, even resorting to the occasional lazy foul.
Though some apprehension was felt when Raheem Stirling joined the fray after the interval the Championship side did not wilt, Terence Kongolo making one particularly vital interception. Unfortunately, Gabriel Jesus seeking revenge for being cheated of a goal by Ream, scored in the 72nd and 75th minutes to emphasise the gulf between the teams.
Kongolo and late substitute Sylvester Jasper will have mixed feelings about their Fulham debuts, but most people connected with Fulham will choose to forget the trip to the Etihad and look forward to easier and more productive matches in the Championship.
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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