Overcoming a team condemned to playing in League One next season was supposed to be the easy part for Fulham but nothing felt straightforward on a night of tension at Craven Cottage and, if Neil Warnock was watching this game on television, he will no doubt have taken note of some generous refereeing decisions. It was only when the marginally offside Aleksandar Mitrovic scored the decisive goal that Fulham could be confident of hauling themselves back into the Championship’s top two with one match left.
For all the late drama, however, the real challenge for Slavisa Jokanovic’s players will be finding a way to enjoy their Saturday. It seems preposterous that a team on a 23-match unbeaten run could be forced to endure the torture of the play-offs. But there is no escaping the unforgiving nature of this race to win automatic promotion, with Fulham all too aware they will be a point below Cardiff if Warnock’s team win at 18th-placed Hull this afternoon.
“We will see what Cardiff do,” said Mitrovic, who has scored 12 goals since arriving on loan from Newcastle in January. “Of course we are confident we can pip them.”
That might depend on Cardiff playing with the kind of anxiety that threatened to derail Fulham’s challenge for much of this fraught encounter. Jokanovic admitted his players felt the pressure, particularly during the first half, and their choked display allowed Sunderland to prey on their nerves.
Sunderland had only had a week to digest the ignominy of successive relegations but Chris Coleman’s team were roared on by a good-humoured away following and Fulham had already survived a couple of scares before Joel Asoro broke the deadlock in the 28th minute. Ashley Fletcher flicked a long ball on to the winger, who celebrated his 19th birthday by spinning away from Matt Targett and angling a low shot past Marcus Bettinelli from 20 yards.
Fulham could have no complaints. Loose touches, sloppy passing and misunderstandings had undermined their spirited approach, Tom Cairney was struggling to find his range in midfield and this was one of Ryan Sessegnon’s quieter games.
There was further alarm when Targett limped off with an ankle injury. But luck was on Fulham’s side, with Peter Bankes waving away Sunderland’s appeals for a penalty when Tim Ream caught Ovie Ajaria on the stroke of half-time. “I was bitterly disappointed with the decisions,” Coleman said. “It’s not a tough call. And Fulham’s second goal was a yard offside. But look, we haven’t been relegated because of referees.”
Fulham were level moments after Ream’s escape. Aboubakar Kamara, Targett’s replacement, released Ryan Fredericks and, although Jason Steele tipped the right-back’s cutback away from Mitrovic, the Sunderland goalkeeper’s intervention only presented Lucas Piazon with an open goal.
“We wanted to dominate but we moved the ball without taking a risk with the last pass,” Jokanovic said. “It was not an easy moment for us. We showed some great character.”
Fulham strove to assert themselves at the start of the second half. Kamara, impressing on the right, was a thorn in Marc Wilson’s side and the substitute almost found a way through with a powerful shot, only for Steele to react sharply at his near post.
It was clear Coleman, a former Fulham captain and manager, also wanted to leave a good impression at the place he once called home. Mitrovic threatened and Steele was booked for timewasting, but Sunderland were defending with dogged resolve. The frustration was building.
When Cairney bent an effort inches wide, it seemed Fulham’s hopes were slipping away. But when Stefan Johansen lifted a free-kick to the far post and the flag stayed down, Mitrovic silenced his detractors in the away end with a deft header. Now Fulham need a favour from Hull.
Promotion and relegation: how they stand
Champions: Manchester City
Europe: Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham are favourites for the top four with Chelsea in fifth. Arsenal could still reach the Champions League by winning the Europa League. Burnley look certain to finish seventh and return to Europe after 51 years away.
Relegation: West Brom are now five points from safety with two games to play. Stoke are just two points above the Baggies, while Southampton are now a point behind Swansea, who they play in their penultimate match. West Ham and Huddersfield are still looking over their shoulders.
Automatic promotion: Cardiff need a home win over Reading to seal promotion, with Fulham hoping to pounce on any slip-up as they face Birmingham on the final day.
Play-offs: Aston Villa and Middlesbrough, and Derby leading the race to join them. Preston can still force their way into the top six.
Relegation: Sunderland will finish bottom with Burton, Bolton and Barnsley separated by a point. Barnsley can secure survival with a win at Derby on the final day, while Burton go to Preston and Bolton host Nottingham Forest.
Automatic promotion: Wigan and Blackburn (pictured) have sealed automatic promotion and will now battle for the title. A point at Doncaster on the final day will realistically be enough for the Latics.
Play-offs: Shrewsbury and Rotherham, with Charlton, Scunthorpe and Plymouth battling for the other two places. The latter two meet in midweek.
Relegation: Bury and MK Dons are down while Walsall’s late winner has left Northampton all but mathematically relegated. Oldham and Rochdale are fighting to avoid the final spot; they face Northampton and Charlton respectively on the last day.
Champions: Accrington Stanley
Automatic promotion: Luton Town, Wycombe (pictured)
Play-offs: Exeter City, Notts County and two from Coventry, Lincoln and Mansfield, who need to beat Crawley on the last day to have any chance of sneaking in.
Relegation: Barnet‘s win at Morecambe took the race for survival to the final day. If the Bees beat already-relegated Chesterfield, they can leapfrog Morecambe if the Shrimps lose at Coventry.
National League: Macclesfield Town have secured the only automatic promotion spot, with one from Tranmere, Sutton, Boreham Wood, Aldershot, Ebbsfleet and AFC Fylde to come up via the play-offs.
Premiership:Celtic can seal the title by beating Rangers on Sunday. Relegation looks a straight fight between Partick Thistle and Ross County.
Championship: St Mirren are champions, with Livingston, Dundee United and Dunfermline set for promotion/relegation play-offs. Brechin are relegated.
League One: Ayr United are champions with Raith, Alloa and Arbroath joining Dumbarton in the play-offs. Albion are relegated.
League Two: Montrose are champions with Peterhead, Stirling and Stenhousemuir joining Queen’s Park in the play-offs. Cowdenbeath face a relegation play-off with Cove Rangers or Spartans.