Two goalless draws in four days at Elland Road but this one will not cause Leeds United angst. There are few Championship teams with Fulham’s fluency and Leeds’ success in fronting up to them last night provided a blueprint for other clubs in the division.
At times in the earliest moments of the game Fulham looked like cutting loose but there is never much separating these clubs and their neck-and-neck scrap for a play-off position last season continued in the fifth straight draw between them. There was talent aplenty on the pitch – Chris Wood, the subject of bids from Burnley, and Fulham’s Ryan Sessegnon who rated as a £25m left-back by Tottenham – but nobody able to decide a match which rarely drew breath.
Ibrahima Cisse struck a post in the opening exchanges as Fulham were allowed to play their game but Wood failed to put away a one-on-one chance for the second game running and the cost of that, as in Saturday’s 0-0 draw with Preston North End, was another goalless scoreline. Leeds held their hands up to a poor showing against Preston, unable to break down a team with 10 men for the last half-hour, but there was less to criticise in yesterday’s effort.
Thomas Christiansen remains unbeaten after four games as head coach and the point accrued against Fulham was banked despite an ever-diminishing pool of defenders. Already without Gaetano Berardi and Matthew Pennington, Christiansen lost Liam Cooper ahead of kick-off but was dug out of a selection quandary by a remarkably calm full league debut from 20-year-old Conor Shaughnessy. A midfielder during his days with Reading’s academy, Shaughnessy dropped in at centre-back with extraordinary ease and emerged with a creditable clean sheet. When an end-to-end second half dried up, neither side had cause to complain with the result.
It was a year to the day since Wood lit the fuse on his finishing with an overhead kick in the same fixture last season and the scrutiny on him now is as intense as it was then, albeit in a more positive sense. Twelve months ago he was fighting scepticism about his capacity to operate as a lone centre-forward. In the past week he has been the subject of two bids for Burnley, both of them in excess of £10m and both rejected by Leeds.
Christiansen dismissed the suggestion after Saturday’s draw with Preston that the attempts to sign him might serve as a distraction and Wood’s inclusion last night was never in question. It will not be in question after his failure to beat David Button in the first-half. Elsewhere, Leeds were more stretched. Injury accounted for Cooper and Shaughnessy was thrown into a debut which never came his way at Reading. Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, named on the bench, was United’s only other fit defender.
The threat to Leeds came from Fulham’s pace, as it was bound to do, and there were signs of it early on as the game settled in the way the visitors intended. Stefan Johansen drove a 20-yard shot narrowly wide after United got into a tangle inside their box and a volley from Aboubakar Kamara, Fulham’s debutant striker, deflected behind after Ryan Fredericks cut through the left side of Leeds’ defence.
In the 18th minute, Leeds were saved by the frame of their goal. Another quick Fulham attack ended with players camped outside United’s area and Ibrahima Cisse’s shot beat Felix Wiedwald before smacking against the German’s left-hand post. There was one team in it for 20 minutes as Leeds struggled to put pressure on Fulham goalkeeper Button, an isolated figure in front of the South Stand.
Button was exposed for the first time when Pablo Hernandez slid a clever pass to Samuel Saiz whose cut-back towards Wood was scrambled away by Tim Ream and that chink was enough to inject some life into United’s football. An attacking line of Saiz, Hernandez and Gianni Alioski had been made to look lightweight in the initial stages but their flair began to seep out as the first half wore on.
On 32 minutes, the best chance of the half fell to Wood in the same fashion as the crucial moment in Saturday’s goalless draw with Preston. Fulham lost their shape as Alioski fed the ball through their defence and Wood advanced on Button one-on-one and at pace. Having failed to beat Preston’s Chris Maxwell with a low effort, Wood attempted to dink a chip over Button but was denied by the keeper’s right hand. The house was on Wood and the house lost. Fulham, meanwhile, lost Lucas Piazon to a suspected broken leg soon after, but Slavisa Jokanovic was able to turn to Neeskens Kebano, the Congolese winger who ran Leeds ragged at Craven Cottage in March. The intensity refused to drop and Wood rounded off a full-blooded half by driving a volley from Saiz’s cross beyond Button, only to see an offside flag rise behind him.
At the restart there was none of the same respect given to Fulham at the beginning of the game. United plugged the gaps, pressed Jokanovic’s players and watched Fulham run short of ideas. The biggest midweek crowd seen at Elland Road for fully a decade began to scent a win in the offing.
Luke Ayling volleyed wide on the hour after Hernandez’s free-kick forced Fulham deep and Saiz dragged an effort wide after skipping away from his marker on 75 minutes. At the other end, a nerveless Shaughnessy appeared in the right place to block Johansen’s strike after a misplaced free-kick from Eunan O’Kane sent Aluko sprinting forward.
Aluko went closest to a winner when he burst in behind Christiansen’s defence 12 minutes from time but Wiedwald advanced to meet him and did what Button had done to Wood by meeting the forward’s finish with a strong and resistant hand.
Kalvin Phillips also missed a late chance by pulling a rebound across the face of Fulham’s goal.
By then it was anyone’s game and by full-time it was nobody’s, as it usually is when these clubs meet.