Steve Cooper made a couple of changes from the 1-0 win over Leeds last weekend, giving starts to Serge Aurier and Gustavo Scarpa who replaced Neco Williams and Danilo. Following a 3-2 FA Cup replay triumph over Sunderland, Fulham manager Marco Silva made nine changes to his Fulham side as they aimed to beat Forest at home for the first time in three meetings at Craven Cottage.
Barely minutes into the game Forest were dealt a huge and unlucky blow as centre-back pairing Willy Boly and Scott McKenna required treatment, with the duo having to be replaced. Whilst giving Brazilian defender Felipe a debut, this wasn’t a pleasant sight for the 3,000 travelling fans — concerned with an already long list of first-team injuries.
Renan Lodi had the game’s first half-chance after 12 minutes following a flowing move down the right with Brennan Johnson and Aurier. The Welshman’s cross evaded Morgan Gibbs-White and fell for Lodi but the full-back wasn’t able to divert his effort on target.
The inclusion of Scarpa meant Cooper’s side were lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with an extra attacking player fielded to provide more balance. As it happened, Freuler and Mangala often struggled to contain the Cottager’s creativity without the third holding player in there.
Fulham had lots of early possession and with 15 minutes played they made it count. After Aurier conceded a free-kick on the left wing, Andreas Pereira delivered the cross, causing chaos in Forest’s penalty area. Firstly, the ball fell into the path of Bobby De Cordova-Ried who saw his shot blocked from wide. Ex-Chelsea winger Willian then found space on the right wing in the box and after putting Lodi on the floor with a fake cross, sent a precise curling shot goalwards, giving Keylor Navas no chance as the ball flew right into the top left corner.
Fulham’s run of three league games without a goal ended emphatically by the winger, showing that he still has the ability to change a game at the age of 34.
Scarpa spurned the visitor’s next opening, again coming down their right. Gibbs-White found Johnson well forward who in turn cut inside and found Chris Wood in the box. Wood layed it off to Scarpa on the left but his shot arrowed away from goal and into the Hammersmith End.
Fulham should have doubled their lead 10 minutes before the break as Joe Worrall was caught sleeping when the hosts had a throw-in, allowing Willian to race down the left wing. After drifting infield, he found talisman Aleksander Mitrovic in the box, as the Serbian glided past Worrall before seeing his strike diverted away from goal by Navas.
Marco Silva’s outfit had controlled the game for large periods and stepped up the tempo as the sides approached half-time. Forest surrendered possession trying to play from the back on 42 minutes, allowing Pereira to find De Cordova-Reid 25 yards from goal. The Jamaican playmaker launched a wild strike goalwards with the crossbar being bruised, leaving Forest hanging on.
And hang on they did. 1-0 at the break and that score line certainly couldn’t be argued with.
Cooper would have certainly had some stern words at half-time but Fulham carried on where they left off, hitting the woodwork again six minutes into the second period. Willian was involved again, regaining possession from Gibbs-White before meandering towards goal, eventually seeing a dipping effort clipping the outside of the post and bouncing to safety.
It was clear something had to change and Jonjo Shelvey came on to replace Mangala in midfield and Emmanuel Dennis coming on in place of Scarpa. These changes would improve the Reds — but not before Fulham hit the crossbar again. A Pereira free-kick crashing off the woodwork much to the relief of Navas after 58 minutes.
Andre Ayew replaced Chris Wood and Forest started to gain some confidence. Johnson would start this rampage, blazing over a half-volley from the edge of the box.
On 65 minutes, Dennis had Forest’s best opening following Aurier’s cross from the right. The Nigerian had time in the box but after taking a touch, hammered his shot just over Bernd Leno’s goal.
Two minutes later, Forest tested Leno after Shelvey stood one up to the back post following a Gibbs-White corner. Aurier was in the middle but saw his headed close-range attempt beaten clear by the German ‘keeper.
With their fans buoyant and with momentum growing, Forest were looking the best they had all game after the substitutes. Shelvey got on the ball deep and was always looking forward while Dennis added some firepower down the left flank, something Scarpa struggled to do.
However, by not taking their chances, Forest were always liable to concede on the counter and that’s exactly what happened with two minutes to play. The hosts brought it forward down the right before working it to the left where they outnumbered Forest, with Pereira finding substitute Solomon in space. The Israeli attacker took a touch before slotting past Navas with composure, giving the Costa Rican no chance.
Defeat leaves Forest six points above the relegation zone as they only dropped one place to 14th. Positives can be taken from the performances of Shelvey, Dennis and Felipe — who looked good on the ball after his early introduction — but the Reds can’t afford to let this loss get them down as they prepare to host Manchester City next Saturday.
Cooper said: “It’s a disappointing result. In the first half we didn’t play at the level required. It was always going to be a tough game away from home and you have to be at it from the start.
“We needed to improve our performance and we did in the second half. We really took the game to Fulham and that was the idea from the start of the game, but it took us until half time to get going.
“I felt it was a matter of time until we equalised but we didn’t make the most of the attacking momentum and when you play like that you run the risk of getting exploited on the counter attack and that’s what has happened for the second goal.
“We needed to play with a bit more purpose, belief and intent in the first half but I feel we did do those things in the second half, and I’ve just said to the players the difference between the two halves was night and day but the learning is that we need to do that from the start.”