Whilst it’s too early in the season to panic, this match had something of a pivotal feel. After 5 games of the campaign we were unbeaten, top of the League and in such good form that a meme was already circulating launching the good ship HMS Piss the League…
That felt a little presumptuous for most of our more experienced and grounded following and in the 4 League games since the vessel set sail (while not exactly run aground, has been coughing and spluttering a little), form has generally still been good but too many missed chances have cost us dearly on the points front.
Swansea had reached the play offs in each of the last two Championship seasons, so even though they’ve made a slow start following Steve Cooper’s departure, they were still likely to provide a good yardstick to measure our progress by.
Marco Silva made three changes to Saturday’s starting line-up with Bryan, Reed and Kebano coming in for Robinson, Chalobah and Onomah and it was Neeskens who was to have the most impact with a dynamic showing in the first half. It was noticeable that we were trying to feed him the ball quickly at every opportunity and his direct running caused the visitors no end of problems. He was the catalyst for everything good that we did in the opening 45 and could easily have been man of the match if our Serbian talisman hadn’t bagged a hat-trick on the night.
In fact, it was a Kebano cross that led to our opener on the 12th minute when it was only half cleared to Tim Ream who returned the ball with interest to Aleksandar Mitrovic who took advantage of the space he was in and the lack of a linesman’s flag to steer home with aplomb. TV replays did show our Serbian striker was offside but in view of the fact Bristol City’s equaliser at the weekend should have been ruled out, I wasn’t about to shed any tears. Indeed we could have easily argued the case for a penalty before our goal after a challenge on Wilson went unpunished so we were due a break. Either way I’d argue it’s better to take the rough and smooth of referees decisions rather than suffer the slings and arrows of VAR like we had to last season.
Although we had the lead and continued to threaten, Swansea were looking neat and tidy in possession so it was very pleasing to get the insurance of a second goal in the 32nd minute. Joe Bryan picked off a loose pass and quickly put Kebano clear down the left. His pull back from the byline found Mitro moving menacingly at the near post and although his contact wasn’t the cleanest, there was enough direction on it to evade the keeper and find the far corner of the net.
It was a relief that the Serbian had his shooting boots on after our recent travails in front of goal but if we thought it was the trigger for a relaxing evening and an easy victory it took the Welshmen only 6 minutes to respond when Jamie Paterson took advantage of some lax defending to halve the deficit.
It could’ve made Marco Silva’s half time chat very awkward except for the fact we responded brilliantly with a third goal on the stroke of half time. It wasn’t particularly a goal of aesthetic beauty or intricate passing, but instead was a goal of glorious simplicity. Once again possession was recycled quickly but this time instead of Kebano down the left it was Denis Odoi marauding down the right. Our Belgian cult hero wasted no time before crossing to find Mitro once more moving in to the right place to steer the ball home with precision in one sublime movement. It made me think of a David Gower cover drive at Lord’s – so exquisite was the timing of the Serbian’s shot. I hope this reference isn’t completely lost on the younger non-cricketing fans in the Focus audience?
With our two goal cushion restored there was hope that we might be able to stretch our advantage in the second half and once again lay down a marker to our rivals at the top. However, Swansea had other ideas and controlled the tempo of the game immediately on the resumption with their crisp passing game. Fortunately though, apart from a couple of close shaves early on they didn’t really threaten our goal.
Worryingly, Joe Bryan got a knock and with Alfie Mawson coming on we went to a back three and seemed content to soak up the visitors pressure. It was far from a vintage Fulham performance but as I alluded to earlier it was more important to get a result to restore confidence and close the gap at the top. In that sense it was mission accomplished and with the quick turnaround of a game on Saturday lunchtime, perhaps there was a measure of energy preservation in our second half endeavours.
Saturday’s opponents – Coventry City briefly went top on Friday yet followed that up by getting stuffed at Luton tonight. For them it was a brutal reminder of the Championship’s unpredictability and should serve as a warning to us about any complacency this weekend.
In the meantime, I’m just content to savour a satisfying victory, the pyrotechnics of our favourite striker, and dreamy summer afternoons of beer and cricket. Don’t blame me – blame Mitro?
Up the Fulham!