Fulham are running out of lives. This was a devastating defeat, inflicted by a superb injury-time strike by Adama Traoré, and one about which they can have few complaints. Traoré ran on to a smart, round-the-corner pass from the substitute Fábio Silva to hammer a vicious angled drive past Alphonse Areola and leave Scott Parker’s side three points behind Newcastle, who have two games in hand.
While Wolves were hardly superior over the 90 minutes, Fulham simply did not do enough and they had already got lucky once. Wolves were furious when Willian José’s header on the stroke of half-time was ruled out by a ludicrous application of VAR, but in the end it did not matter and they earned their first win in six games.
Fulham had collapsed late on at Villa Park last weekend and Parker’s search for stability led him to select Terence Kongolo, who had been obliged to bide his time for a Premier League debut after being injured during the first half of the season, in defence. It felt like a gamble and so did his decision to deploy three centre-backs for the first time since early February. Had José glanced Nélson Semedo’s second-minute free-kick past Areola, rather than across him and wide, the manager’s reshuffle would have faced awkward early questions. José had not scored since joining Wolves but he would have far more cause for regret later on.
Proceedings descended into huff and puff until, shortly before the half-hour, Fulham came close with a flashing header of their own. Ruben Loftus-Cheek should have converted it: the chance arose when Antonee Robinson, the left wing-back who had shown most of the hosts’ attacking initiative, was located in space by a raking pass from Joachim Andersen and had time to measure a cross. The delivery was inch-perfect but Loftus-Cheek, unmarked and 12 yards out, nodded past Rui Patrício’s left upright on the run.
It was enough to prompt a mini-flurry in which Aleksandar Mitrovic shot on the turn but saw a defender block at close quarters. That spell of pressure faded soon enough: Wolves had been eviscerated on the break by West Ham on Monday and showed no intention of succumbing to a repeat performance, while Fulham’s prospects of producing one were severely hampered by Ademola Lookman’s absence with a hamstring injury.
Pedro Neto’s early departure with a knock boded ill for further ebb and flow given his replacement was the steadying influence of João Moutinho.
While Adama Traoré remained at large, his only contribution before the interval was a left-foot strike that bobbled horribly wide from a decent position near the edge of the box.
Mitrovic planted a header wide but, with the half’s final action, José appeared to break his duck. A methodical Wolves move ended with Daniel Podence reaching the right byline and chipping across for José to rise and convert emphatically. A legitimate goal, until the obsessive and ruinous interference of VAR is priced in. Podence was eventually ruled offside by the smallest portion of a shoulder; even that, however, was hardly glaringly obvious from replays. Wolves had every right to fume.
Perhaps Fulham would use the let-off as fuel for a clamber towards safety. Kongolo executed a snappy tackle on Traoré 10 minutes into the second half but they were showing little bite in the area where it was urgently required. Romain Saïss hacked away before Robinson’s latest piece of ammunition could reach a lurking Mitrovic and that was the only further moment of attacking consequence either of these sides, both meticulously structured but lacking any brio or thrust that might truly stir the senses, had produced as the game entered its final quarter. Wolves sniffed an opportunity when awarded a free-kick inside the ‘D’ but Saïss, stepping up instead of Ruben Neves, was high and wide by two yards.
Parker upped the ante by introducing Josh Maja for Harrison Reed. It was a message that Fulham needed to attack and, within seconds, Bobby Decordova-Reid shot wide. Robinson then fizzed a centre across the box but nobody could convert. At least it was an improvement and, as if seizing the invitation to go toe-to-toe, Wolves responded when Leander Dendoncker looped a header on to the roof of Areola’s net.
Next Ivan Cavaleiro replaced the defender Ola Aina, but Fulham’s attempt to go hell for leather came too late. In a frantic end to the game both sides piled forward and it was Traoré, otherwise quiet by his standards, who landed the sucker punch.