Fulham earned a crucial three points at Craven Cottage on Saturday afternoon, beating Championship strugglers Barnsley 2-1 thanks to goals from Floyd Ayite and Sheyi Ojo.
It was simply a must-win match for Fulham following last weekend’s drab 1-0 defeat to Sunderland, and under-pressure manager Slavisa Jokanovic made a number of changes that proved crucial to the Whites’ success.
Out came Rui Fonte and Oliver Norwood, who were replaced by Ayite and Aboubakar Kamara; this meant Fulham returned to the midfield three that delivered much success last season.
In addition, the front three of Ayite, Kamara, and Ojo was dangerous from the off, and Fulham began the match with purpose and intent. As always, the Cottagers dictated the majority of possession, and also threatened Barnsley with a barrage of overlaps and strong wing play.
Stefan Johansen struck an early free kick that was spilled by Davies in the Barnsley goal, and Tim Ream rushed to poke it home. Davies did well to block the follow-up and deny the chance, yet Fulham continued to press.
Ojo then went close, seeing his audacious long-range curled effort with the inside of his right boot barely tipped over the bar. Moments later, Tom Cairney wasted a goalscoring opportunity when he skied a strike well over the bar after a cutback from Ayite.
Ryan Sessegnon was enjoying a brilliant time at left back, constantly bombing forward with dangerous runs, beating the opposition defenders, and swinging dangerous balls into the box.
Although the opening half hour was full of positive, penetrating, and sharp football from Fulham, the finishing touch was conspicuously absent.
All of these features were on full display just minutes before halftime, when Fulham wasted by far the best chance of the half. After diligent pressing from the lively Kamara, Sessegnon bought himself space on the byline and whipped in a hard cross across goal. It met the head of Ayite just yards from the net, but as the Cottage rose to its feet in anticipation, the ball somehow flew past the post and out for a goal kick. The chance exemplified Fulham’s lack of cutting edge in the final third, leaving the score frustratingly poised at 0-0 after 45 minutes.
Fulham 0-0 Barnsley here at halftime at the Cottage. Fulham have played very brightly in the first half. Ayite missed an absolute sitter and Sessegnon has been dangerous, we need a goal in the second half to cap a positive attacking performance #FFC #COYW pic.twitter.com/R78xrnLh7M— Max Cohen (@maxpcohen) December 23, 2017
Just under ten minutes into the second half, Fulham got the goal they sorely deserved, and in stunning fashion. Floyd Ayite collected the ball 25 yards from goal after a pass from Cairney, took a couple of touches into the middle of the pitch, and unleashed a thunderbolt of a strike that arrowed unerringly into the bottom right hand corner. Craven Cottage erupted in jubilation, appreciating Ayite’s moment of magic in his return from injury.
But in typical Fulham fashion, the lead would only last for a quarter of an hour.
The lone moment of note for the Barnsley traveling faithful had been their boisterous renditions of Christmas carols, yet that all changed in the 68th minute. Fullback Andy Yiadom was given too much time to loft in an uncontested cross from the left wing, which was obligingly headed home by Barnsley’s top-scorer Tom Bradshaw.
Fulham had again thrown away a 1-0 lead, due to lackadaisical marking and an absence of focus. The equalizer laid clear the reasons why the Whites have only managed four league clean sheets all season.
Crucially, the Whites refused to let their heads drop after the devastating blow of the Barnsley goal. Fulham resumed their attack with renewed vigor and were rewarded just four minutes later. Ojo received the ball on the right wing, looked up, and lofted a cross-shot to the far post.
The ball delicately nestled itself in the back of the net, and although Ojo later admitted he was aiming for a cross, it was a lovely goal nonetheless. The strike put Fulham back in the lead and left the Whites with all three points, although in a tighter fashion than Fulham may have liked.
The 2-1 win moved Fulham one place up the table into 11th, six points off the playoffs at the league’s halfway point. At this stage last season, Fulham were seventh, just two points behind the coveted sixth position. This season reveals a clear step back from last year, yet Fulham’s promotions are far from over.
Slavisa finally seemed to find a convincing starting XI against Barnsley, with Kamara staking his place for the central striker position after an energetic display in which he was a constant handful up top. Dropping Johansen back into centre midfield, his best position, was also a positive step that granted the Whites familiar stability in the centre of the park. And Sessegnon impressed all match from left back, constantly pressing forward and contributing effectively to the attack.
The focus now shifts to the Boxing Day fixture away to Cardiff, where Fulham will need to be sharper in defence if they hope to knock off the league’s second placed team. But although the odds may be stacked against them, supporters should remember what happened last time Fulham played the second placed team away from home: a classic 5-4 win at Sheffield United.
Let’s hope for more of the same on Tuesday. COYW!