Scott Parker asked his players to rise to the occasion in the absence of Aleksandar Mitrovic and how they delivered as superb solo strikes by Josh Onomah and Neeskens Kebano earned Fulham a two-goal advantage in their quest to reach the Championship play-off final.
Onomah tucked home after wriggling away from three defenders before Kebano continued his free-kick scoring streak by curling a delicious effort into the top corner. Worse still for Cardiff is that Mitrovic, the division’s golden boot winner, is expected to return at Craven Cottage on Thursday, when Fulham hope to seal a spot at Wembley next week having shown their class to establish a healthy buffer.
Neil Harris, the Cardiff manager, accused Fulham of being overzealous in their celebrations – “it looked like they had won the tie,” he said. But as Parker, who defended his players by saying he “didn’t see anything that was over the top,” pointed out they have every right to be cheerful after a comfortable win.
Fulham are in a rosy position but had to recover following an unconvincing start, with an outstanding piece of defending by Michael Hector ensuring the game was goalless at the interval. He miraculously scooped the ball off the line and away from danger as Robert Glatzel attempted to poke home after Marek Rodak parried Leandro Bacuna’s shot; there is a reason some supporters have affectionately given him the moniker ‘Virgil van Mike’. “When you come under a little bit of pressure, you need to withstand it,” said Parker. “Heccy did very well and over the course of the second half our quality shone.”
Mitrovic missed the trip to south Wales with a hamstring complaint but Parker, who said it was a “calculated decision” to omit the striker with the bigger picture in mind, is hopeful his 26-goal talisman will play a part in the return leg. Fulham, as they did during Mitrovic’s three-match ban last month, coped but despite two excellent goals they lacked a focal point, with Bobby Decordova-Reid, the former Cardiff forward, isolated in attack.
“Aleks has picked up a little bit of a knock, a little bit of an issue,” Parker said. “We went into the game knowing this was going to be over two legs. We needed to make a decision that was best for the game and I think the right thing to do was to give him a few more days to hopefully get him ready for Thursday.”
Lee Tomlin’s early influence began to wane and Cardiff ran out of ideas when Fulham took the lead through Onomah, who eluded three defenders before tucking the ball beyond Alex Smithies. When he picked up possession on the edge of the box there seemed little danger but the midfielder proceeded to expertly swivel away from Marlon Pack, turn Sean Morrison and then jink inside Curtis Nelson before applying the finishing touch. It was a magnificent goal that spurred Fulham into life.
“He needed a bit of a home, a bit of love,” Parker said of Onomah, who ran to his manager to celebrate. “He’s got every facet. It was a fantastic goal.”
Slowly Fulham began to sap Cardiff of any belief, passing them to death as they went in search of a second. It eventually came as full time loomed, but it was worth the wait. Kebano has developed into a trusty dead-ball specialist of late and here he scored his third direct free-kick in nine days, curling a delightful effort into the top corner to double Fulham’s advantage and leave Cardiff with work to do.
“I told the players I have been in play-off finals where I have been behind, the first goal at Craven Cottage will be key,” Harris said. “There was a 2-0 deficit in the League Two play-offs [which Northampton turned around against Cheltenham]. It does not mean it will happen for us but ultimately we need to be positive. Up to the first-half drinks break we were the much better team.”