By David Williams
Neil Harris has admitted Cardiff City are now an outside bet to reach a Wembley play-off final after claiming a combination of poor defending and poor decisions by the referee have handed Fulham a big advantage.
A clearly frustrated Harris – seething over both the free-kick that cost his team a second goal in their 2-0 home defeat as well as ropey defensive play – insists the tie is still alive.
But it would represent a huge turnaround at Craven Cottage on Thursday for the Bluebirds to reach the Championship play-off final.
Not only were Fulham the better side for all but the opening 20 minutes, but Harris’ team spent most of the final hour chasing the ball as Scott Parker’s side displayed their talent.
History is now against Cardiff, too, as no team has ever overturned a two-goal first-leg deficit to reach the Championship play-off final.
Superb strikes from Josh Onomah and Neeskens Kebano put Fulham in a commanding position but Harris was unhappy with the award of the late free-kick, which Kebano curled home to double Fulham’s advantage.
But Harris also said Cardiff had shown their resilience enough times this season, including when they fought back from a three-goal deficit to draw 3-3 away to champions Leeds United in December, to ensure that the tie was not over.
“The first goal (on Thursday) is going to be vital,” Harris said. “If Fulham get it then it’s going be really difficult for us.
“Fulham are huge favourites now but we are capable, with the players and the camaraderie we’ve got, of scoring goals.
“We are capable of clawing this back. We have the right character and mentality.”
Harris described the second Fulham goal as a “right kick in the nuts”, but insisted the Bluebirds are not out of the tie.
“The first 25 minutes we were excellent, but we have to take one of our chances then and get on top,” Harris said.
“After the drinks break Fulham were better, but at half-time we were relatively happy. Second half, we never really got going.
“They pressed much better and made it more difficult to build attacks. First half up to the drinks break we were the better team by miles. We had two great chances but the ball wouldn’t go into the net. Then Fulham grew into the game.
“The first goal was a great goal but we have to defend better. We’ve not laid a glove on him around our own penalty area. With the second, we’re frustrated [as we didn’t think it was a foul] but it was a great free-kick.”
Fulham head coach Scott Parker said: “Overall, it was a good performance.
“We weathered the storm early on and got a foothold in the game. I think we’re well worthy of the two-goal lead at this stage.
“We worked our socks off and our foundation was built on concrete, but it will be another huge battle on Thursday.
“This is only halfway through and we’ll stand up to the challenge.”
Kebano’s free-kick in stoppage time sparked huge celebrations on the Fulham bench.
WHAT A GOAL ⭐️
Josh Onomah produces a piece of magic to put Fulham ahead
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— Sky Sports Football (@SkyFootball) July 27, 2020
Harris suggested the celebrations were excessive – “it looked like they had won the tie” he told Sky – but Parker rejected that claim with 90 minutes to come in west London.
“Neil has said a lot over the last week and few weeks, I just see a group of players,” said Parker, who lost 26-goal top scorer Aleksandar Mitrovic before kick-off with a slight hamstring injury.
“I didn’t see anything that was over the top, I just see a professional team that understood that there is only half of this tie done.
“The players were pleased, and rightly so, to score two away from home, but at the end of the game I see a real professionalism from us.”
Fulham were establishing command when Onomah came up with a 49th-minute solo goal that will be long remembered and Kebano doubled the lead with a superb free-kick in stoppage time.
There appeared to be no danger to Cardiff four minutes after the restart with Onomah 18 yards out and his back to goal.
UNBELIEVABLE DEFENDING 👏
Michael Hector somehow keeps Fulham on level terms in South Wales
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— Sky Sports Football (@SkyFootball) July 27, 2020
But the former Tottenham midfielder turned Marlon Pack and rounded both Sean Morrison and Curtis Nelson before slotting past goalkeeper Alex Smithies.
It was no more than Fulham deserved as Scott Parker’s men underlined their reputation as the best passing side in the Championship and Cardiff – who finished one place and eight points worse off than the visitors in the regular season – struggled to lay a glove on them.
Fulham were weakened by the absence of Aleksandar Mitrovic, the Championship’s top scorer, and Parker explained pre-match that he had to make a “calculated decision” to keep the 26-goal Serbia international in contention for the rest of the play-offs.
Mitrovic’s absence meant Bobby Decordova-Reid, who left Cardiff for west London last August, filled a more forward role as midfielder Harry Arter also missed out.