Matches like these make you remember why you fell in love with football. In a truly special Boxing Day display, Fulham ran rampant at Cardiff City Stadium, smashing four goals past the league’s second-tightest defence and ending the Bluebirds’ 11-match home unbeaten streak.
The clash brought out Fulham at their very best: a resolute defensive shift led by the excellent Tim Ream, an utterly commanding performance by Tom Cairney, and a reminder of why Ryan Sessegnon is rightly known as the most promising youngster in England.
There can be few doubts that this was Fulham’s most impressive performance of the season, a win reminiscent of last year’s famous run that propelled the Whites into the playoffs. Just like Norwich, Newcastle, and Huddersfield away last season, Fulham were undaunted by the prospect of playing the Championship’s best sides away from home.
The Whites, buoyed by their home victory over Barnsley over the weekend, began the match with purpose and should have been awarded a penalty just five minutes in. A driving run from the revitalized Stefan Johansen eluded a number of Cardiff defenders, and the Norwegian was clearly felled inside the area as he cut to his right. The referee inexplicably waved play on to the dismay of the Fulham faithful.
But the loyal traveling support had much to cheer just minutes later. Fulham had dominated the opening proceedings, with Cairney especially influential in orchestrating Fulham’s trademark possession style. The Whites took a deserved lead on 12 minutes, when neat footwork from Cairney released Floyd Ayite down the wing, whose cross was nodded on by Kevin McDonald to an unmarked Ream. The American made no mistake with the far post header, smashing home to the delirium of the away fans.
The bright play of the Fulham fullbacks was causing Cardiff a host of problems, as both Ryan Fredericks and Denis Odoi found themselves in dangerous crossing positions in the first half. Yet the Bluebirds began to grow back into the match, with Kenneth Zohore looking particularly threatening when chasing through balls and closing down the Fulham backline.
The Whites entered the interval with the one goal advantage, setting the scene for a tasty second half filled with thrills and spills alike. Early on in the second half, Cairney and Sheyi Ojo both went close before Fulham added a second in some style.
Ayite received the ball on the left wing and cut an exquisite ball to Sessegnon, whose sublime first touch left Sol Bamba in the dust. The 17-year-old had the composure to pick out the onrushing Ayite, who swept home to double Fulham’s advantage.
But the away support had barely finished celebrating the second goal before Cardiff struck back immediately. The ever-threatening Zohore produced an absolute bolt from the blue, a wonderfully struck volley from outside the box that halved the deficit. Suddenly, the Bluebirds were back in the match, right when it seemed Fulham would pull away.
Neil Warnock’s side began to grow in confidence, with Cardiff forcing a tremendous save out of Marcus Bettinelli in the 66th minute.
The tide seemed to be turning, and ten minutes later Jokanovic made his first swap of the afternoon, bringing on Rui Fonte for Ayite. The switch immediately paid off when Fonte did well to gather the ball on the right wing, cut inside past his defender, and whipped in an inviting ball into the middle of the pitch. What followed was utter class.
The ball initially seemed to be underhit, but the incoming Ryan Sessegnon showed great tenacity to guide a lovely touch with his chest past the fullback. Clean through on goal, the teenager yet again showed the composure of a player many years his senior, with two confident touches that set up a flawless finish into the bottom right corner.
As Sess ran over to the away corner in celebration, he pointed to the Fulham badge with a massive smile on his face. “He’s one of our own,” the faithful replied with glee.
3-1 up at the Cardiff City Stadium with just ten minutes to play, it seemed as if all would end well for the Whites. The jubilant Fulham rendition of Jingle Bells reverberated from the away end as the rain poured down on South Wales.
Yet it wouldn’t quite be Fulham if the closing stages were that easy. Cardiff grabbed a goal back in stoppage time from the substitute Callum Paterson, leading to a nervy final minutes chock-full of heart-in-mouth moments. At 3-2, the Bluebirds piled everything they had on to attacking the Fulham goal, but in the 97th minute their over-exuberance led to their own downfall.
Cardiff over-committed in the Fulham half, leading to a clearance from Fredericks that sent Johansen through on goal from inside his own half. The midfielder raced into Cardiff territory, and with all the time in the world, chipped a delicious shot over Neil Etheridge to seal the deal on Fulham’s excellent display.
The win was impressive on so many fronts: not only did Fulham score four goals away from, they did it against a side that only conceded 16 goals in 23 previous matches. Not only did they demolish Cardiff at home, the Bluebirds hadn’t lost at home since April.
It marked a remarkable Boxing Day treat for Fulham supporters everywhere, perhaps the first time all season the Whites have truly fired on all cylinders. And with 22 matches still left to play, who knows what Fulham are capable of when they play this well. COYW!