Fulham’s Ryan Sessegnon sets up win over Millwall to boost promotion hopes

Dominic Fifield at The Den on 20 April 2018

This was a result to have the nerves jangling in a corner of south Wales. Fulham have returned to the Championship’s top two, ousting Cardiff from the automatic places for 24 hours at least, with the rousing nature of this win an indication that their pursuit of promotion remains relentless. Millwall, outstanding themselves of late, had not lost in 17 league games. In the end even they appeared diminished.

The south Londoners would leave the pitch with their fans applauding their efforts, and their own ambitions to reach the play-offs apparently unfazed by defeat with two games to play but their manager, Neil Harris admitted this had been a reality check.

Fulham, now without a defeat in 22 league matches in a notoriously treacherous division, weathered the hosts’ early storm and imposed themselves impressively after the break. They were untouchable at times. Few teams at this level can muster such a blend of zest and panache and much of their approach play was Premier League ready.

The pace of their passing and fluid movement up-field would grace the top flight with Ryan Sessegnon, at 17 the Championship’s player of the season, truly a a gem of which the elite have long heard talk. It was his instinctive dart and finish, pouncing for a 15th goal this term after an indecisive Jordan Archer had only parried Aleksandar Mitrovic’s long-range shot, which set the tone 41 seconds into the second half. “After that, we started to move better, finding more space,” said the Fulham manager, Slavisa Jokanovic. “It was a brilliant second half.”

The Serb’s own assessment of Sessegnon’s display included a nudge towards Gareth Southgate. “I believe Ryan can be there (at the World Cup),” he added. “But, if not this time, then in two years in another big tournament.”

The teenager, the product of a fine academy, caught the eye but plenty excelled. Matthew Targett clipped the bar from distance. Mitrovic would thump in his team’s third, and his 11th in his last 12 games on loan from Newcastle, after Tomas Kalas’s run from deep, and Kevin McDonald, the unsung worker at the base of a dazzling midfield, would enjoy his own moment. With Millwall disoriented and the atmosphere momentarily deflated, he left George Saville on the floor and meandered inside to belt a shot which swerved viciously to pass inside Archer’s post via the goalkeeper’s fingertips.

If the hosts could curse Archer’s uncharacteristic errors, their own evening degenerated into frustration as the cautions mounted up and Tim Cahill appeared to floor Ryan Fredericks with an elbow. Harris had not seen that incident, on the far side of the pitch, but was clearly unimpressed by Andre Marriner’s display on a rare outing in the second tier.

“He did very well for the away team in the first half,” said the Millwall manager, Saville having been denied an opening goal after Jed Wallace was penalised for a foul on Targett. “If I was the defender, I’d probably want the foul. But it was 50:50. There was a lot of protection for Fulham, though. But, as the referee told me at half-time, he thought he’d been ‘excellent’.”

Harris’s team, too, had been excellent through that frenetic opening when their intensity knocked Fulham off their stride. Jake Cooper saw a powerful header turned on to the crossbar by Marcus Bettinelli from the game’s first corner, with Tim Ream scrambling Wallace’s close-range shot from the goalline. But the chances were not taken and, once Fulham found their rhythm, they proved more ruthless from the moment their hosts’ tempo dipped even marginally.

The lead from Cardiff is a slender two points and the Welsh club can reassert control against Nottingham Forest and Derby in the next four days, but the pressure is on them. Jokanovic suggested he would watch his rivals’ game with Forest on Saturday evening “if I don’t find something more interesting to do”. At present, as this game proved, there is little better than watching his own team in action.

Premier League

Manchester City have won their fifth English league title. Manchester United  (74), Liverpool (71) and Tottenham (68) look set to join United in the top four with Chelsea five points behind Spurs in fifth. Arsenal are just two points above Burnley in sixth, but could still reach the Champions League if they win the Europa League. Burnley look bound for Europe, unless Southampton win the FA Cup.

West Brom (25pts) are still eight points from safety, after their draw with Liverpool, and could be relegated on Sunday. Stoke (28pts) and Southampton (29) are losing touch with Swansea (33), Crystal Palace (35), West Ham (35), Huddersfield (35) and Brighton (36) in the fight to avoid relegation.

Championship

Wolves (pictured) have won the title and with it promotion to  the Premier LeagueFulham (85pts) are third but Cardiff, in second on 86 points, have a game in hand in the race for automatic promotion. Aston Villa (82) have an outside chance of finishing second but are definitely in the play-offs. There is a fierce battle to join them there, with Middlesbrough (72) leading the wayMillwall (69)Derby, Preston, Sheffield United, Bristol City and Brentford are separated by three points.

Sunderland (34pts) have been relegated after their defeat to Burton (38), who face a relegation shootout with Bolton (40) on Saturday. Barnsley (38pts) have a game in hand but Birmingham (43) and Reading (43) are in the driving seats.

League One

Wigan have secured promotion and Blackburn (90pts) need one win for an immediate return to the second tier. Shrewsbury (83pts) may have to settle for the play-offs alongside Rotherham and two from Charlton, Scunthorpe, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Peterborough and Bradford.

Bury have been relegated to League TwoMK Dons, Northampton and Rochdale make up the bottom four, but Oldham, Walsall, Wimbledon, Oxford and Gillingham are all still in danger.

League Two

Accrington Stanley and Luton have sealed promotion. Wycombe (78pts) and Exeter City (77) and Notts County (76) are battling for third place. LincolnCoventry and Mansfield are fighting for the remaining two play-off spots.

The league's bottom two are running out of time to escape – Chesterfield are nine points adrift with three games to play, Barnet are four from safety with two to play. Grimsby, Forest Green and Morecambe can still be pulled into the relegation scrap.

Macclesfield Town have secured the only automatic promotion spot from the National League, with one other team set to come up via the play-offs.

Latest Football News