Football matches are often decided on moments. Fulham’s inability to make enough of those moments count is the reason the team finds itself still stranded in the bottom three…
Those moments passed the Whites by again as Leeds visited Craven Cottage, and firmly established themselves as a Premier League club once again. The Yorkshire side now have 39 points, which will surely be enough to secure another season in the top flight, with time to spare. For The Cottagers, the battle continues.
The Manchester City press caused plenty of problems the previous week, and a similar intensity was always likely as Marcelo Bielsa’s serial runners provided the opposition for Friday Night Football. Once again, Fulham failed to deal with it well enough to avoid conceding the lead, on two separate occasions. The warning signs were clear when Luke Ayling headed beyond Alphonse Areola, only to have VAR use the now famous lines to disallow the goal. No lines were needed when Raphinha was flagged offside after dispatching another shot, and while both decisions were correct, it did reflect the one-way nature of the first thirty minutes.
It was one of the aforementioned moments that lead to the Leeds opener. Quick thinking from Jack Harrison confused Ivan Cavaleiro, who lost the Leeds winger, allowing him to cross for Patrick Bamford. A momentary lapse in concentration and Fulham were punished. But there would be more. Before that, Scott Parker’s team did rally, and create uncertainty in Leeds territory through set-pieces. Indeed it was a set-piece that provided the equaliser. Quite often set-pieces have presented opportunities to score this season, but only two goals have come from them. Tosin Adarabioyo has had his fair share of chances to open his Fulham account, and Joachim Andersen could have been adding to goals against Crystal Palace, as opposed to celebrating a maiden strike for his loan club. How different the table may look if some of those chances went in rather than begging.
It was the kind of profligacy that has been seen too often this season that provided the next key moment. Ademola Lookman’s inability to convert Mario Lemina’s cut back not only wanted an opportunity to take the lead, but it provided Leeds with a counter-attack, something they relish. More moments were to come in the 20 or so seconds between Lookman’s miss and Raphinha’s winner. Lemina, back in his midfield position lost the ball cheaply, before Andersen inexplicably committed himself to a challenge he was always the underdog to win, thus removing himself from the equation entirely. Even after Bamford played the ball towards Raphinha, Robinson looked favourite to to get enough contact on the ball and divert it away from the Brazilian, but he lacked the decisiveness to intervene, and Leeds were back in front.
Despite ending the first half well, and starting the second half relatively well, a Fulham lead could have been considered to be against the run of play up to that point. Leeds dominated the opening half hour, and the first 15 minutes following the break were only shaded by the home side. The hosts had enjoyed a total of roughly fifteen minutes of the upper-hand, and that would be a generous assessment. But it seems that if Fulham are to win a game, they absolutely must play well. It sounds obvious, but there has not been a game this season where you could say that fortune was the determining factor in a Fulham victory, and over the course of 38 games, any team will admit that you probably need at least one or two to go that way.
It comes back to a lack of being clinical in those moments. If Lookman scores, Parker has shown he is capable of setting up a side that holds on to the lead. Just see the performance at Anfield. But these moments have passed in games both home and away against Brighton (Cavaleiro and Ruben Loftus-Cheek twice), away at West Brom (Bobby Decordova-Reid-Reid at 1-0), Sheffield United (Aleksandar Mitrovic) and Crystal Palace (Andersen and Josh Maja). Including the visit of Leeds that is six games in which the performances have not been perfect, but there have been moments where a clinical edge would have turned one point or none, potentially, into three. It is not realistic to expect all of those to turn out favourably, but just two of them would add four or perhaps five points to the current total. Such a return would be enough to place The Whites above the bottom three, and apply severe pressure on others in the lower reaches of the Premier League table, particularly Brighton and Newcastle as they lined up to face one another 24 hours after the most recent fixture at Carven Cottage.
As it happens, Brighton swept aside Newcastle, encouraging further speculation about Steve Bruce’s job security. It now looks to be a two-horse race for 17th. The Geordie’s are still in the driving seat, with a two-point lead and a game in hand, but have the more difficult fixtures on paper. If Parker and his team are to complete, what must be recognised as a monumental turnaround, keeping pace with The Magpie’s until the final day is the minimum requirement. There will certainly be more twists and turns in the Premier League run-in. Unexpected results are the norm in this less than normal season, but, offered a straight shoot-out with a team who have tasted victory in just two of their previous 18 fixtures, the vast majority of Fulham fans would willingly accept that challenge in exchange for a shot at another season among the elite of English club football.
Parker has dismissed the notion that the team are paying attention to the results of their rivals, and he may be right to do so. However, fans of both sides will have a close eye on the others’ every week until the season finale. Mark your calendars, 23rd May 2021 is looking like a significant date in Fulham history.