Bristol City 1-1 Fulham: Cairney rescues a point in end-to-end spectacle at Ashton Gate
BRISTOL, ENGLAND - MARCH 07: Tom Cairney of Fulham celebrates after scoring his team's first goal during the Sky Bet Championship match between Bristol City and Fulham FC at Ashton Gate on March 07, 2020 in Bristol, England. (Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)

Fulham will rue a squandered opportunity to put pressure on the top two, and the same goes for Bristol City in their pursuit of a play-off spot, but given neither side truly managed to seize control in a frantic end-to-end affair, it is unlikely Lee Johnson and Scott Parker will be turning their nose up at a draw.

Donning their 125th-anniversary shirt, it was an emotional occasion for the hosts - and not just because of the historical milestone.

Returning to Ashton Gate was academy graduate Bobby Decordova-Reid, who traded standing ovations of applause with earfuls of boos in what was, overall, a mixed reception from the fans of his former employers.

Reid's return, though, was a mere subplot of what was a golden opportunity for Bristol to reignite their pursuit of a playoff spot - a quest that had been derailed after just one win in six. Today's point nudged the Robins into 7th, still very much in touching distance.

A game that began with whispers of an automatic promotion push ended a case of playoff consolidation for Fulham, with Parker's side now four points clear of Nottingham Forest in 3rd. Yet, given the unpredictable nature of the Sky Bet Championship, it would be foolish to write them off in the hunt for 2nd place.

Story of the match

Taking just 12 points from 16 matches against sides in the top half of the table, Lee Johnson's Bristol have certainly occupied the role of flat-track bullies this season, yet the opening exchanges demonstrated a real zest and intent about the home side.

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Their intentions were clear: soak up pressure, and exploit the space neglected by Fulham's full-backs on the counter-attack, a tactic they utilised to devastating effect.

Indeed, the first significant chance fell the way of the hosts, with Callum O'Dowda standing up an enticing cross to the far post, and Nahki Wells simply unable to muster any conviction behind the header.

Nevertheless, in terms of possession, Fulham were enjoying pockets of sheer dominance, Harry Arter pulling the strings at the heart of a midfield that perpetually overwhelmed the likes of Han-Noah Massengo and Korey Smith. And, after glancing a header narrowly wide in the 27th minute, Reid again went close on the stroke of half-time, digging out a venomous effort that stung the paws of Niki Maenpaa. 

Fulham's impetus and innovation accelerated as the half progressed, and Reid would be denied a third time by the dexterous Maenpaa in the 51st minute after Aleksandar Mitrovic's judicious first-time layoff.

Bristol remained a potent threat during transitions and on set-pieces, with Wells' strike from range taking a wicked deflection that forced a desperate Marek Rodak to scramble across his goal line and make a save.

It needn't matter, though, as on 70 minutes, Bristol's marksman ensured his contribution would be decisive.

Andreas Weimann's selfish decision to go alone on a four vs one counter-attack forged a corner for the hosts, and - after a mini-game of pinball - the ball broke fortuitously for Wells, whose low, accurate header broke the deadlock.

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Wells almost doubled his tally 10 minutes later when Weimann's shot squirmed from the grasp of Rodak, but the Slovakian recovered quickly. Fulham had been dominating proceedings in their search for an equaliser, and Denis Odoi would soon hit back at the other end, flicking on Neeskens Kabano's corner. He was denied by another agile save from Maenpaa. 

The visitors cranked it up a notch further, and in the 84th minute, Bristol finally succumbed when Tom Cairney picked up a loose ball in midfield and curled a pinpoint effort into the bottom corner.

By the looks of things, a point would not suffice for Fulham, who hunted relentlessly for the winner. However, some last-ditch defending ensured Bristol would come out of the late onslaught unscathed, with Cairney's penalty appeal in injury time falling on deaf ears.

Bristol smothered in midfield

However harsh it may be, to say Han-Noah Massengo looked out of his depth today is somewhat of an understatement.

For all the promise of the 18-year-old, he and midfield partner Korey Smith never looked capable of matching the gilded trio of Cairney, Arter, and Reid, who assumed total control of the middle of the park. The inability to forge inroads has long been an Achilles heel of this Fulham side, but it posed no problem today against Bristol's feeble midfield.

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Not only did they struggle to progress the ball from defence to attack, but the gaping holes they neglected in front of the defence were criminal, and, unsurprisingly, Fulham capitalised. 

Fulham punished on the counter

Nevertheless, Johnson came into the game with a plan, and, but for a late Cairney strike, it almost paid off.

Overlapping full-backs have long served as a trademark of Parker's Fulham, providing the decoy runs for the likes of Ivan Cavaleiro and Anthony Knockaert to cut inside on their favoured foot.

But, maintaning their width throughout, Bristol were poised to pounce on the counter in the spaces neglected by the bombarding full-backs, repeatedly turning the backs of the Fulham defence with measured balls into the channels towards Wells and Weimann.

This simple manouvre served as Bristol's primary offensive weapon, and Parker's men had no answer.