football

Ruben Loftus-Cheek denied at death for Fulham in draw at Brighton


A slog in the south coast mist did not leave anyone’s prospects looking much clearer. The smart money at the outset had been on a stalemate between Brighton and Fulham so, in that regard at least, they did not disappoint. Graham Potter’s side are now winless in 14 home games but prevented Fulham, whose run without any kind of victory extends to nine, from reeling them back in towards the bottom three. There remains a five-point gap between them and, while Ruben Loftus-Cheek came agonisingly close to reducing it at the death, nobody involved will feel too dissatisfied at the outcome.

The potential jeopardy attached to this fixture had been illustrated several hours before kick-off when Brighton announced a record £67.2m loss for the 2019-20 season. Relegation to the Championship, alongside the continued effects of a pandemic, could yet render that small beer but the home side began the night with a handy buffer above the drop zone. Fulham’s need for the points was more obvious and Scott Parker had expressed optimism before the game that one win might quickly bring a run of two or three.

They started as if keen to assert themselves, denying Brighton any meaningful possession in the first 10 minutes. The sum of that spell was a 30-yard blast from Ola Aina that flew wide by a whisker after he had run onto a loose ball. These sides are both neat and well organised but usually well short of cutting edge; they had played out a scoreless draw at Craven Cottage last month in tidy yet turgid fashion and there was little, during the first half of this rematch, to suggest the taps would be turned on here.

Despite that, Brighton should have led by the interval. After that bout of ball chasing they settled down and, aided by a period of extended sloppiness on Fulham’s part, began to carve out openings. The best fell to Leandro Trossard, who was teed up by Neal Maupay inside the area and had time to take a touch before shooting. Given the space and proximity to goal he ought to have beaten Alphonse Areola, but the keeper saved well with an outstretched leg.

Trossard saw another effort blocked after Fulham had played themselves into difficulty at the back and, shortly afterwards, drilled an excellent centre just beyond the sliding Maupay. Lewis Dunk had a sight of goal too, getting a run on Pascal Gross’ delivery but heading straight at Areola. Those opportunities all arose in a seven or eight-minute spell before the half’s midway mark.

There followed a reversion to cagey, compact type. One Fulham counter brought a strong run from Ivan Cavaleiro, who ended up whipping a foot wide, while Gross was off target by a similar distance with a well-struck free-kick. Any deviation from what was now effectively a 135-minute deadlock would have to wait.

Bobby Decordova-Reid sought to open things up shortly after the restart but, gifted half a chance by a wayward defensive header from Joël Veltman, blazed over from a tight angle. Fulham were finding space a little more regularly, the increasingly involved Loftus-Cheek eventually running out of options after one run down the right and Cavaleiro toe-poking at Robert Sánchez with two defenders in close attendance.

By the hour mark, Brighton’s performance could be bracketed among the bulk of their season’s work. Slick enough moves floundered at the 18-yard line as if repelled by a magnetic force, the only real exception being a Gross effort that was charged down. Dunk and Adam Webster are usually a threat from set-pieces but, when Brighton did win corners, Areola was on top of their attempts to hang the ball under his crossbar.

With 20 minutes to play they produced something altogether more incisive when, after a quickly-taken free-kick, Alexis Mac Allister flicked on with his heel and played Maupay in. But the striker blazed over in an action firmly in line with all that had preceded it.

Maupay was granted another bite when meeting Veltman’s cross at point-blank range But Areola made an instinctive stop and, when Solly March followed up, Aina did equally well to block.

Dunk bettered that with virtually the final action, clearing heroically off the line after Loftus-Cheek’s shot had beaten Sánchez. At least it was something to remember the night by.



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