Leeds United 3
Fulham’s hopes of automatic promotion to the Premier League took an almost certain fatal blow at Elland Road as Leeds ran out 3-0 winners to leapfrog West Brom at the top of the table.
The West Londoners were the better side in the first half and were unlucky to go in 1-0 down at the break to Patrick Bamford’s goal.
But an inspired double substitution from Marcelo Bielsa at half-time saw Leeds take control of the game and run out comfortable winners in Yorkshire, thanks to additional strikes from substitute Ezgjan Alioski and Jack Harrison.
Fulham would have considered themselves unfortunate to be behind at the break.
They were the stronger of the teams, both physically and skilfully in the first period - maybe too physical, in fact.
Indeed Aleksandar Mitrovic would have been sent off for an off-the-ball elbow on Leeds centre-half Ben White after just two minutes had referee Tony Harrington spotted it.
Leeds were on top early and took the lead through Bamford after 10 minutes.
Harry Arter gave the ball away in the middle of the park and Helder Costa pounced, advancing down the right and squaring for Bamford whose left-footed effort put the Yorkshiremen in front.
Fulham finally began to get a foothold in the game after 25 minutes, and from there on dominated the first period.
Anthony Knockaert’s left-footed volley drew a save from Illan Meslier, before appeals for penalties – first for a tug on Bobby Decordova-Reid and then for handball against Tyler Roberts – were both correctly waved away.
Ten minutes before the break Knockaert saw an effort fly high and wide of the Leeds goal, before Meslier was called upon once again, this time to stop a wickedly swerving volley from Mitrovic, who just a few seconds later headed wide of the Leeds goal from a corner.
But despite the pressure, Leeds could have doubled their advantage in first-half stoppage time when a long ball sailed over the head of Michael Hector to Bamford, who brought the ball down in front of goal, but baulked under the challenge from Hector and the onrushing Marek Rodak.
Bielsa changed it at half-time, bringing on Alioski and Pablo Hernandez, a lovely player whose skill and time on the ball will not be out of place in the Premier League next year – if indeed that is where Leeds finally end up.
United could have been 2-0 up just four minutes after the break when Hector again misjudged a long ball, allowing Tyler Roberts to ghost in behind, but his effort was screwed wide of the right-hand post.
Then only a brilliant block from Harrison Reed prevented Kalvin Phillips from doubling Leeds’ advantage.
But the key moments of the game came in the 56th minute. First Bobby Decordova-Reid could have equalised for Fulham but his tame effort was easily saved by Meslier.
And within seconds Leeds were 2-0 up, substitute Alioski coolly slotting home after a cross from the right somehow evaded about six Fulham defenders on its way through to the goal scorer.
And on 71 minutes Pablo Fernandez played a fantastic ball first time on the turn to Jack Harrison, who held off his defender and slotted home for 3-0. Game over.
And as if things couldn’t get any worse for Fulham, substitute Neeskens Kebano was sent-off with just seconds left.
Fulham look relatively secure of a place in the play-offs – their advantage over seventh-placed Blackburn Rovers is seven points – the same gap they now face to reach an automatic promotion place, with just seven games left.
Fulham: Rodak, Odoi, Hector, Ream, Bryan, Reed, Arter, Knockaert (yellow), Cairney, De Cordova-Reid, Mitrovic