Fulham made it six points from two crucial Easter fixtures with a 3-1 win over ten-man Aston Villa to significantly enhance their play-off credentials – but were made to work harder than they’d have liked.
The home side took an early lead through 16-year-old protege Ryan Sessegnon, before the visitors had Johnathan Kodija red-carded for kicking out at defender Ryan Fredericks after 26 minutes – a decision which enraged Villa manager Steve Bruce as well as the travelling fans.
The Whites were then pegged back to 1-1 by a stunning Jack Grealish goal five minutes after half-time, but the Villains weren’t level for long. Halfway through the second period, the excellent Sone Aluko connected with Floyd Ayite’s cross on the volley and his effort glanced off goalkeeper Sam johnstone before nestling in the back of the Villa net. As Fulham looked to make the game safe they were occasionally sloppy in possession, Fredericks particularly guilty on one occasion, but substitute Neeskens Kabanko made the game safe by firing a powerful, low shot into the far corner.
Due to the game being televised on Sky Sports, Slavisa Jokanovic’s side unenviably kicked off 15 minutes prior to every other Championship game – so they needed a flying start. After some early skirmishes down both flanks it was Fulham’s youngster Sessegnon who broke the deadlock. A cross was floated over from the right hand side after an Aluko shot was initially blocked and the teenager timed his volley perfectly, but the ball cannoned down off the crossbar.
Fortunately for Fulham, the 16-year-old’s reactions are as sharp as his haircut. He neatly took the ball down and slotted it in with his weaker foot to send the Craven Cottage crowd wild. The referee had already been fairly generous to the home side early on, but his decision to send off Villa striker Kodija seemed more than a little bit harsh. Fulham fans saw the sending off it as delayed retribution for the red card that was issued to their frontman Chris Martin in the 3-1 win over Norwich on Good Friday.
The 3,500 or so Aston Villa fans who had travelled down from Birmingham fans were predictably unhappy – not that they could see much from up in the Putney End – but boss Steve Bruce was incensed, even still in the post-game press conference. Villa took stock but the expected Fulham onslaught never really materialised. The away side’s confidence grew and they levelled through former England Under 21 International Grealish. The much-maligned youngster cut in from the left before sending a rocket of a shot which past the stranded Marcus Bettinelli.
The equaliser woke Fulham from their slumber and they retook the lead within six minutes. Aluko was Johnny on the spot and fully deserved his goal for a sterling afternoon’s work. Fulham looked a more threatening prospect after Neeskens Kabano’s introduction just after the Villa goal. The Congolese was a menace to Villa’s fullbacks and as the visitors tired, as to expected playing a man down for over an hour, Fulham took advantage. Tom Cairney was influential alongside Stefan Johansen in the middle of the park and the latter slid a ball through for Kebano to slid home the third to seal all three points.
Jokanovic praised his side’s strength of character and attractive football after the game. Asked whether his side can handle the pressure of being chased rather than doing the chasing, he was unequivocally positive. Results elsewhere, specifically Leeds United’s home defeat to Wolves, means that Fulham’s destiny is in now in their own hands once again. Next up is a rather more difficult test away to high-flying Huddersfield on Saturday, but Fulham have the momentum and a fully fit squad. With just three games to go perhaps most importantly, Fulham, now top scorers in the Championship, are galvanised by the knowledge that they can beat any team in the division.