Amid a play-off bottleneck which features three White Rose clubs in Huddersfield Town, Sheffield United and Middlesbrough, two will have been fairly satisfied at Wednesday night’s events – another less so. Pity it was Boro for their sakes.
Chris Wilder had warned his side, who dropped out of the top six courtesy of Nottingham Forest’s victory over Coventry, about not letting Alexsandar Mitrovic out of their sight for so much as a split-second, being ‘ultra-tight’ and ‘wrapping him up.’
Earlier this season, Cristiano Ronaldo and Harry Kane had been seen off by Dael Fry, Paddy McNair and company on famous Cup nights.
Mitrovic, though, scored his 38th league goal for Fulham this term in his 37th outing to settle the issue with a bullet header from Harry Wilson’s free-kick 17 minutes from time, proving he is something else entirely at a level where he feasts like a king.
Uncharacteristically, Mitrovic – who rejected a move to Boro in early 2018 – spurned one big chance in the first half after looseness from Fry. He was not so forgiving second time around.
Mitrovic does what he does and always will in the Championship. At the other end, Josh Coburn and then Duncan Watmore spurned huge late chances to level as Boro’s run of eight successive home league wins ended. That’s the difference.
If Wilder has any consolation, it is this. Without one of the top operators in his position in the division this season in Isaiah Jones, who failed to start a league game for the first time since the end of October due to illness, Wilder’s side went out via the ‘front door’ as he likes to put it. A stirring ovation for his team at the final whistle was something. But he’d have preferred a point or three. Boro deserved something, but sometimes you don’t get what you deserve.
With Jones being conspicuous by his absence, it represented an interesting exercise to see how Boro would cope without their brightest young thing.
Early on, the jury was out and they did not look particularly convincing, with the danger signs apparent against a Fulham side who were quick in the press and assumed a fair amount of control.
Harrison Reed, whose searing break and early cross just required a touch in front of goal from a supporting Fulham player, hinted at plenty. But an incident later on in the half involving him helped change the narrative in Boro’s favour. Lying prostrate on the deck after being caught by a hard but fair challenge from Matt Crooks, Reed promptly assumed new life when Fulham dispossessed the hosts and broke upfield. His cross ended in Mitrovic’s header being gathered by Joe Lumley. Boro supporters were incandescent and it seemed to rouse the hosts as those in red gradually stirred into life.
Boro should have made better of a break involving Andraz Sporar and Marcus Tavernier before Tavernier’s excellent cross found the lurking Crooks from just his sort of range, but a captain’s contribution from Tim Ream got a vital touch to divert his goalbound first-time effort over, with Marek Rodak beaten.
At the other end, alertness from Anfernee Dijksteel prevented the silky Fabio Carvalho in the nick of time. But aside from that and Fry’s error to let in Mitrovic, Boro had few alarms with Joe Lumley protected well.
They would have a big scare early in the second half, but thankfully Bobby Decordova-Reid proved not to be a member of the wide awake club. Wilson and Kenny Tete opened up Boro, but the Fulham forward did not react quick enough at the far post and steered the effort wide in a let-off for the Teessiders.
Boro rediscovered themselves and only a sharp save from Rodak kept out a low drive from Sporar which was otherwise destined to creep into the right-hand corner of his net.
As the rain hammered down, Boro became more intense, but Fulham weathered the storm and cashed in through Mitrovic.
The hosts responded. Sporar headed wide and then could not convert as the ball fizzed across the box. The hosts had two huge chances and passed them by. You cannot do that against Aleksandar Mitrovic’s Fulham.
The Londoners will be promoted if Forest lose on Saturday and they win 24 hours later. Should that transpire, the division will say good riddance to Mitrovic.
Middlesbrough: Lumley; Dijksteel, Fry, McNair; Peltier (McGree 60), Crooks (Coburn 77), Howson, Tavernier, Taylor (Bola 56); Watmore, Sporar. Unused substitutes: Daniels, Bamba, Connolly, Balogun.
Fulham: Rodak; Tete, Adarabioyo, Ream, Bryan (Robinson 82); Reed, Chalobah (Onomah 64); Wilson, Carvalho, Decordova-Reid (Kebano 64); Mitrovic. Unused substitutes: Gazzaniga, Hector, Muniz, Seri.
Referee: J Linington (Isle of Wight).