Fulham survive Cardiff's second half test to set up west London derby final at Wembley
Fulham 1 Cardiff City 2 (aggregate 3-2)
Play-off semi-final second leg
It was nervy. It was tight. It was tense. But Fulham got the job done. Just. They are through to their second Wembley play-off final in three seasons after edging past a gutsy Cardiff.
Their prize is a showdown with neighbours Brentford on Tuesday night in a match for the ages. A match deserving of the bumper crowd it would have generated.
No team has surrendered a two goal away lead in a Championship play-off and although Fulham made sure they were not the first team to suffer that fate, it was way too close for comfort.
The reaction of the players at the end was more tired relief that euphoric celebration – in stark contrast to last night at Griffin Park when the hosts looked ready to party all the way to the final, such was their level of excitement. It remains to be seen what that observation amounts to, if anything.
Even without Aleksandar Mitrovic – once again sidelined with a leg injury and perhaps now a doubt for the final itself - the Whites had expected a night of relative comfort.
They returned to west London on Monday with a 2-0 win from the first leg in Cardiff, but they were given a jolt after eight minutes when Curtis Nelson headed home an inswinging corner from Joe Ralls.
Within seconds, the Whites had responded as Neeskens Kebano continued his rich vein of form by converted Bobby Reid’s cross from the right.
But the second half would prove to be a long slog after sub Lee Tomlin poached a goal from close range to leave the Bluebirds just one goal away from taking the tie to extra-time.
Kebano had bagged the all-important second goal in injury time in the first leg in south Wales on Monday night and his equaliser after nine minutes was his fifth goal in four games. He had not previously found the net this season.
So many chances were missed to make it less of a fraught occasion for Fulham. Only a last-ditch tackle by Sean Morrison denied Bobby Reid a shooting chance after a well-weighted through ball from Anthony Knockaert had put the Fulham striker on the scent.
Not long after, Knockaert also sent a curling low shot towards the bottom corner which needed turning aside by keeper Alex Smithies.
The Whites were also so close to edging in front of the night when Smithies spilled a long-range shot from Cyrus Christie and Knockaert's follow-up effort was deflected inches over the bar.
Fulham paid for their profligacy when they were caught napping at the start of the second half and trailed again when Tomlin hooked in from close range after Marek Rodak had turned aside a header from Nathaniel Mendez-Laing – another of the switches made at the interval by City boss Neil Harris.
Danny Ward was then a whisker away from getting on the end of a Leandro Bacuna cross as Cardiff sensed a way back and the edginess creeping into Fulham’s night was palpable. Referee Paul Tierney booked Rodak for time-wasting as he tried to take the sting out of Cardiff’s tempo.
Fulham badly needed something to get back control and Abou Kamara – who replaced Kebano at half time – forced Smithies into a flying save before crashing a drive against the inside of the keeper’s right-hand post in the next attack. The keeper’s fingertip touch did just enough to deflect a shot that might have crept in.
It then needed a sensational tip-over from Rodak at the other end after Will Vaulks volleyed towards the top corner in the aftermath of a goalmouth scramble which saw the Fulham keeper smother another chance for Mendez-Laing. The same striker flashed a thunderbolt just wide as the tension mounted.
Another near-post volley at the death from Robert Glatzel came very close to prolonging the agony, but Fulham survived. They had done just enough to get over the line.
Line-up: Rodak – Christie, Hector, Ream, Bryan (Le Marchand 90) – Knockaert (Odoi 76), Onomah, Reed, Cairney, Kebano (Kamara h/t) – Reid. Subs not used: Bettinelli, Mawson, McDonald, Johansen, Cavaleiro, Sessegnon.