Two goalkeeping flaps handed Fulham a 2-1 win against Leeds in the lunchtime kick-off, keeping the visitors deep in the mire at the foot of the table.
Considering some of the apocalyptic pre-season predictions that were made for them, it’s reasonable to say that Fulham have had a decent enough season back in the Premier League. Relegation was never a serious proposal, talismanic striker Aleksandar Mitrovic has demonstrated that he does know the way to goal in this division, and manager Marco Silva has found his stock rising as they held their own in the top flight. It has sometimes felt that Fulham have even been somewhat overlooked.
But at the same time, the banks of the River Thames have not been an especially happy place over the last few weeks. Hopes of European football for next season faded with a run of just two wins in 10 games from the middle of March and, with Premier League safety assured, it has been suggested that they may be the team most likely to turn out for their remaining matches carrying beach towels and with a straw donkey under one arm.
Doctor Everton was on hand in their last game to provide them with a little pain relief, but Fulham have been playing as though they already have one eye on the end of May.
And the issues at Craven Cottage run somewhat deeper than the team’s tail-off as winter turned to spring. The recent announcement of huge season ticket increases for the start of next season has enraged a fan base which isn’t usually the most animated, and rightly so. The headlines were made by a £3,000 season ticket to sit in the new (and still not quite completed) Riverside Stand, but increases across the board of between 16% and 22% have angered supporters, with the Fulham Supporters Trust – who were not even consulted over the increases – describing them as “draconian”. This hasn’t been the first time that owner Shahid Khan has been controversial with his ticket pricing policies.
At least Fulham can guarantee Premier League football for next season. Leeds United certainly can’t, and a bad result in this lunchtime fixture combined with the 3pm kick-offs going against them might easily see them fall back into the bottom three, with time now really starting to run out to save their season. Following up a 5-1 home defeat against Crystal Palace by losing 6-1 at home to Liverpool couldn’t have been timed much worse. These two results felt like a hammer blow.
At least, they may have consoled themselves, they wouldn’t be facing Mitrovic, who’s now halfway through the eight-game ban that he earned for losing his rag in the most extradordinary manner as Fulham crashed out of the FA Cup at Manchester United last month.
As so often happens with a Saturday lunchtime kick-off, it felt throughout the opening exchanges as though most of the players could have done with an extra hour in bed. Passing was sloppy and chances were limited, to the point that arguably the biggest moment of the whole half came when it looked as though the match officials had missed Brend Leno picking up what looked from a distance like a clear back pass.
No-one in the stadium reacted to this at all – it might have been understandable had Fulham supporters seen it but collectively decided that keeping mum would be their best course of action – and the game continued as if it was 1991 all over again. It was only upon viewing it from a reverse angle that it became evident the pass had scraped the studs of an oncoming attacker as it ran through to the goalkeeper.
This was one of the rare highlights of a fairly undistinguished first 45 minutes.
If it had felt somewhat unusual that a Leeds defence that had conceded four, five and six goals in their last three defeats had appeared so unthreatened throughout the first half, it didn’t take long in the second before they were breached. Illan Meslier is a decent young goalkeeper, but it’s unlikely that he’ll be wanting to watch this match back after his feeble paw at a cross resulted in the ball falling at the feet of Harry Wilson who, with the first serious moment of Premier League quality of the afternoon, lashed in off the underside of the crossbar to put the home side in front. Meslier’s contribution to it all was rather more in keeping with the previous 56 minutes.
Five minutes later, Andreas Pereira rattled the Leeds crossbar from a free-kick on the right-hand side of the penalty area. Changes finally started to come. If Javi Gracia’s intention had been to keep it tight and try to nick a goal on the break, well, they hadn’t looked much like nicking one on the break all afternoon, while Meslier’s moment of feeble-wristedness had driven a stake through that whole defensive plan.
Patrick Bamford and Luis Sinisterra came on for the ineffective Brenden Aaronson and Rodrigo. But with 20 minutes to play Fulham were 2-0 up.
It was a very similar goal to the first one. Again, Fulham spread the ball out to their left because there seemed little likelihood of a solid challenge preventing a cross. Again, Meslier made a hash of his attempted clearance, this time with a dive that looked more like a sack of potatoes toppling over sideways than an elite-level athlete performing at the peak of his abilities. And again a Fulham player – Pereira, on this occasion – was on hand to take advantage to double his team’s lead.
Game, set and match? Not quite. Six minutes later, Bamford, whose introduction from the bench had finally breathed a little life back into Leeds’, pulled a goal back with a scrappy finish given as an own goal after a deflection off Joao Palhinha. But still, they couldn’t quite get onto the smothering front foot that they needed to haul their way back into the match. Meslier redeemed himself by pushing Willian’s shot onto the inside of the post and then swatting the rebound clear. But even with nine minutes of stoppage-time at the end of it all, Leeds seldom looked like scoring a second as Fulham shut up shop and ran down the clock for the win.
The good news for Leeds is that Everton and Nottingham Forest failed to take advantage in the 3pm kick-offs; the bad news is that Leicester did, beating Wolves. Those results leave Leeds in 16th but the gap to the bottom three is a single point – and being dependent on teams failing to win to protect their position is not ideal in any case.
This particular defeat was to a great extent self-inflicted. Leeds had considerably more to play for than Fulham did in this match, but if this is all they’ve got against a team that is comfortable in mid-table and with little to play for, you can only start to wonder where the points required to keep them up are going to come from. Their next home match against Leicester City on Tuesday looks even more win or bust than it did before.