Fulham took a huge stride towards the Championship play-off places after Oliver Norwood’s last-minute penalty saw off Middlesbrough at the Riverside.
The game appeared to be heading towards a goalless draw until a frantic finish, which saw referee Geoff Eltringham point straight to the spot after Norwood went down under the challange of Grant Leadbitter deep into injury time.
Just seconds earlier Britt Assombalonga had hit the crossbar for Boro, who suffered their second defeat at the Riverside under Tony Pulis.
Eltringham left the pitch to chants of ‘you’re not fit to referee’ from the home fans, who will have felt their side deserved more after Rudy Gestede wasted a couple of first-half chances.
Boro look settled under Pulis
Pulis only took charge of Boro on Boxing Day, but already the side is starting to take shape under his tutelage.
The hosts were unchanged from the side which beat Sunderland in the FA Cup last time up, which meant top scorer Assombalonga started on the substitute’s bench.
In his pre-match press conference, Pulis spoke about building an identity at his new club, while also praising his opposite number Slavisa Jokanovic for Fulham’s style of play.
Jokanovic made three alterations to the team which started his side’s FA Cup defeat against Southampton a week ago, as in came goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli, Sheyi Ojo and striker Aboubakar Kamara, who scored against Boro in the reverse league fixture back in September.
Those changes meant Ryan Sessegnon, the highly-rated teenager, was moved to left-back, where he came face-to-face with another pacey thoroughbred in Boro’s Adama Traore.
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Traore a handfull
The pair first locked horns in the eighth minute when Traore skipped past Sessegnon on the right, however Fulham defender Tim Ream was on hand to sweep up the danger.
Boro should have taken the lead before that, though, when Norwood rolled a careless back pass into the path Gestede, sending the striker through on goal.
But, the Benin international, who netted Boro’s opener against Sunderland in the cup, couldn’t sort out his 6 ft 4-inch frame quickly enough, and was subsequently thwarted by Bettinelli.
Fulham dominated possession for the remainder of the first half, yet Darren Randolph’s goal was rarely threatened and Boro looked comfortable and well organised out of possession.
Traore was the hosts’ main outlet and, as well as tracking Sessegnon’s runs, looked a threat whenever the ball found his feet.
In the 25th minute, the Spanish winger won the ball off Kamara inside the Boro half before brilliantly charging past three Fulham players, however his cross was blocked by Dennis Odoi.
Boro’s best chance came five minutes before the interval when Jonny Howson, who’d worked tirelessly in the middle of the park, released Gestede through on goal.
But, the striker’s second touch was a heavy one, giving Bettinelli a chance to reduce the frontman’s angles, and Gestede rolled his effort wide.
In the closing stages of the first half, Sessegnon finally broke free down Fulham’s left, but his cross was headed into Randolph’s gloves by Kamara.
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Early changes for visitors
Jokanovic didn’t hesitate at the start of the second half, withdrawing Ojo for former Boro centre-back Tomas Kalas.
That meant Odoi moved to left-back and Sessegnon was pushed forward. Six minutes later, Rui Fonte replaced Kamara upfront.
The second period was a scrappier affair, as the tackles flew in and substitutions broke up proceedings.
On 58 minutes, Gestede’s header from Downing’s free-kick forced Bettinelli to punch the ball clear - while under pressure from Ayala.
Moments later, Assombalonga entered the fray in place of Gestede.
A win would have been huge for both teams’ play-off aspirations and, with tensions running high, the home crowd rallied behind their side.
They almost had something to celebrate when Braithwaite knocked the ball past Odoi in the 69th minute, but smashed his effort into the side netting.
At the other end, Kalas went close from a corner but failed to hit the target after the ball had bounced back to him off Ben Gibson.
Gaps began to appear late on, and Sessegnon received an excellent opportunity to score his fourth goal in as many games 12 minutes from time.
The ball broke to the Fulham winger inside the area after Gibson had slid in, but Sessegnon poked a week effort straight into the hands of Randolph.
A draw looked on the cards until the last twist in stoppage time.