The Great Escape is on for Fulham as Ademola Lookman’s goal finally broke down a stubborn Sheffield United who had been sublime in defence for an hour but, as has been so often the case this season, failed to fashion a comeback.
Both teams have long past the point where draws with those around them are good enough. Monday’s feeble defeat at West Ham might have been the moment all hope was lost for Sheffield United, but a win last night would have taken them off the bottom of the Premier League. Without an away clean sheet all season, manager Chris Wilder made five changes and just as tellingly, changed to a back five in order to combat Fulham’s width on both flanks.
A Fulham win would have taken them to three points off fourth bottom Newcastle United. Buoyed by being unbeaten on their travels since the first week in December, an upturn at Craven Cottege, where they had scored just once in seven games, would have brought flesh to head coach Scott Parker’s Micawber-esque protestations that good times can be around the corner. If the corner can be turned.
Fulham looked as if they meant to resolve things sooner rather than later. Ademola Lookman’s early corner caused Aaron Ramsdale all sorts of commotion and the winger’s combination with Antonee Robinson initially promised to be Fulham’s major source of joy, although Enda Stevens had the measure of Ruben Loftus-Cheek on United’s left. The visitors found themselves pinned back, albeit without surrendering their defensive composure.
Having secured no reward beyond domination from Plan A, Fulham evolved. Harrison Reed took control of midfield. He began to funnel play towards Ivan Cavaleiro, who laboured – although a dizzying run ended with him firing just over goal in what was probably the first period’s best opportunity – and the less predictable Josh Maja who, though still raw, may yet offer belated compensation for coronavirus victim Aleksandar Mitrovic’s plummet in form and goals.
What, though, of United? What indeed. They defended well enough, especially after Chris Basham and Ethan Ampadu swapped positions into their more accustomed roles as defender and holding midfielder, and their commitment was beyond reproach. Yet without creativity in midfield and punch in attack, they offered little beyond hope: the hope that the Fulham storm would abate at one end and the accompanying hope that something would drop for them at the other. They survived the first period, though, and they survived it without a period of sustained peril.
Still level, still maintaining a rigid back five, United were no more inclined to tempt fate in the second period and when Basham hobbled off in the 51st minute, Ampadu returned to where he had began the game.
Without the steady Basham United looked less secure and Fulham began to smell blood. When Loftus-Cheek linked neatly with Maja and finally got the better of Stevens a minute later, he beat Ramsdale, only for George Baldock to hack off the line.
In Lookman, though, Fulham had perhaps the only man on the field capable of transforming the quotidian into the sublime and just after the hour, he provided the breakthrough. Joachim Andersen launched a superb crossfield ball from defence, Lookman collected on the wing, charged past Ampadu’s lily-livered challenge, cut in and fired his fourth goal of the season under Ramsdale.
Now United shed their shell and they might have even equalised moments later when Billy Sharp found Stevens who ran through only to shoot like the full-back he is, at Alphonse Areola’s legs.
Ola Aina’s long-ranger effort brought a flying save from Ramsdale, but United introduced strikers David McGoldrick and Jayden Bogle and oozed a hitherto lacking desperation to score. They appealed long and loud for a penalty after Areola got the ball before clattering into Bogle, but by then, though, it was too late. Just as it surely it is for Sheffield United and the Premier League.