Fulham cannot afford to turn down many more opportunities of this nature. While the loss to Leeds is hardly terminal, it is seen as a missed opportunity to break out of the last three, with Newcastle and Brighton facing off on Saturday, and the frustration at full time was clear.
They came second-best in a thoroughly entertaining game against opponents who performed as insistently as ever, matching Patrick Bamford’s first goal through Joachim Andersen, but being undone by a second-half winner from Raphinha. A glaring failure by Ademola Lookman shortly before that goal could still be cause for regret, as could the loose defensive work that helped Marcelo Bielsa’s side to an almost unusual victory in a London match.
This was a hectic affair from the first whistle, in keeping with both Leeds’ style and Fulham’s moment of opportunity. Ivan Cavaleiro and Bamford had already seen the openings go out when, in the eighth minute, Luke Ayling seemed to have penetrated with far more success.
The Leeds right-back headed a peach header at Alphonse Areola after Tyler Roberts had thrown a cross from the opposite flank, walking away in celebration. Not so fast: VAR showed Roberts had drifted past defense with some combination of head, shoulder and arm upon receiving possession. In other words, by the incredibly strict measures that satisfy those who prefer to study vectors to the appreciation of outstanding soccer ability, he was out of the game by a mile.
Raphinha’s offense was clearer when, having timed his run poorly, he beat Areola as the half approached his midpoint. At the time, it was tempting to draw a parallel with Leeds’ recent loss to West Ham, when two opening goals with wildly different degrees of cheek were similarly ruled out.
Unlike that night at London Stadium, they were not left behind within minutes of those disappointments. Instead, they made it count for the third time, though not before taking advantage of their luck. A combination of Illan Meslier and Ayling stopped Fulham drawing the first blood, the goalkeeper half saving Josh Maja’s shot before his defender cut the ball as he turned towards the line. The goal scoop fight that preceded the opportunity reflected the levels of defensive composure at both ends.
By comparison, the movement that Bamford’s goal generated was quick, clean and crisp. It was also too simple for Fulham’s liking, with Jack Harrison able to pass a serve before throwing a cross from the left line. Pulling away from his man and cutting precisely inside the near post with eight yards, Bamford executed what has become a signature shot.
That was not likely to be the end. Andersen’s draw, seven minutes before the break, was swept away with similar enthusiasm, though Leeds will wonder how he was able to hold back Ayling and turn Lookman’s corner kick into a volley from the middle of a packed penalty area. If Meslier hadn’t repelled André-Frank Zambo Anguissa’s piledriver, Fulham would have gone ahead.
Aleksandar Mitrovic, a perennial substitute these days, replaced Maja at halftime. Perhaps the deceased striker had been injured, though with Mitrovic’s two top flight goals this season coming at Elland Road in September, the move stood up to scrutiny on its own. Proceedings continued as they had left, play rocked between boxes and Areola saved Harrison well after the winger slipped too easily inside from the right.
Just before the hour came the costliest half minute for Fulham. They should have taken the lead when Mario Lemina brilliantly scuttled to the baseline and square off Lookman, who failed his attempt from close range with the begging goal. Within seconds, Lemina was dispossessed in midfield by Kalvin Phillips and Leeds was able to break through the threat. Bamford ended up passing the ball to Raphinha, who withstood a weak defense and deftly adjusted her feet before passing Areola.
Lookman shot Meslier, but Leeds defended his last lead competently, as he continued to threaten through the effervescent Raphinha. The Brazilian put Stuart Dallas ahead for a shot that went wide as the game was there to be sealed. Areola then denied Ezgjan Alioski; As the clock ticked, Fulham ran out of ideas and the fear is that they will soon start to run out of time.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism