At a floodlit Craven Cottage, hosts Fulham moved within three points of 17th-placed Newcastle United with a narrow yet largely comfortable victory over bottom-of-the-table Sheffield United.
The Cottagers worked a number of openings in the first-half but failed to break the deadlock — that would be the job of Ademola Lookman, who produced a deft finish on the hour mark to significantly bolster his side's chances of survival heading into the final 17 games of the Premier League season.
The result sees both teams remain in their respective position before the match: Fulham in 18th, and Sheffield United in 20th.
Story of the game
Fulham manager Scott Parker made three changes from the side that drew with fellow relegation candidates Burnley in midweek. In defence, Antonee Robinson came in for Kenny Tete, while further up the pitch Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa and Ivan Cavaleiro took the places of Mario Lemina and Bobby Decordova-Reid respectively.
Sheffield United's Chris Wilder, meanwhile, made five adjustments. In came Kean Bryan, George Baldock, John Fleck and Oli McBurnie for Oli Norwood, Jayden Bogle, Ben Osborn and David McGoldrick who all dropped to the bench, but the most notable absentee was John Egan who sustained a toe injury against West Ham United — Phil Jagielka replaced him.
A must-win for Fulham in order to put pressure on the teams currently above them in the battle for survival, while defeat for United would deal a huge blow to their chances — this was a six-pointer in every sense of the term, and it had the intensity to match right from the very start.
The hosts had the edge in the opening stages of what was set to be a lively affair. Following a corner in the seventh minute, Lookman left Chris Basham for dead and took aim from around 25 yards out, but a crucial block from Jagielka diverted the ball wide.
Then, with 15 minutes on the clock, centre-back Joachim Andersen strolled into midfield and summoned up a lofted pass to Robinson on the left, who in turn drove a ball to just outside the area of Anguissa was lurking; the Cameroon international took the shot on first time and it fizzed just wide of the far post.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek was the next Fulham player to have a pop at goal. He dispossessed John Lundstram in midfield and strode towards the box, feigning to the right to sell Basham before aiming at goal with his left foot, but it failed to trouble Aaron Ramsdale.
Sheffield United couldn't contain Fulham in much of the opening half-an-hour, and they often resorted to fouls to stop the attacks of their opponents in their tracks — in fairness, it worked, but referee Martin Atkinson's patience with the Yorkshire outfit got thinner each time he blew his whistle.
The Cottagers weren't capitalising on the good spells of play they were putting together. Cavaleiro exchanged a slick one-two with Loftus-Cheek and darted down the right flank leaving Bryan in the dust, but instead of crossing for the unmarked Josh Maja in the middle, the Portuguese forward took the shot on himself from a tight angle and Ramsdale was able to save comfortably.
The final chance of the first half came when Cavaleiro's lofted corner met the head of Loftus-Cheek on about the penalty spot, but it was high of goal, to the midfielder's audible frustration. Fulham had dominated the opening 45 minutes, but to no avail — and the biggest half of the season so far for both of these sides now lay in wait.
Fulham started the second half in much the same vein as they'd played the first. Parker reshuffled his team into a 4-2-3-1 formation at the break with Cavaleiro now on the right flank, and it nearly paid dividends straight away when the 27-year old skipped past Bryan and unleashed a shot at goal, but Ramsdale was able to make a fairly routine diving save.
Moments later, the hosts conjured a golden opportunity to take the lead. Loftus-Cheek again waltzed into the box, skipping past Jagielka and shifting the ball onto his left foot. He beat Ramsdale with his effort and it seemed destined for the bottom corner, but George Baldock appeared from nowhere to yank it off the line and away from danger. What a crucial intervention from the defender.
United then worked their first real opportunity to take the lead. Substitute Norwood showed his quality with an inch-perfect ball in the centre for Billy Sharp, but the visiting skipper somehow turned his effort over the crossbar. The linesman had raised his flag for offside but replays showed it was a tight call which could have been overturned; the striker should really have taken his gilt-edged chance.
But Fulham were the superior team here, and finally took a deserved lead on the hour mark. It was a simple goal in the end, one which made the observer wonder why they hadn't been able to break the deadlock sooner; Lookman latched onto a long ball down the left, cut infield and passed Ethan Ampadu before squeezing his resultant effort in through Ramsdale's legs.
There was no time for the Cottagers to breathe, though — United weren't letting this match, and their hopes of beating the drop, slip away from them just yet.
The Blades should have equalised around five minutes after Lookman's goal. Sharp picked out Enda Stevens in acres of space and the Irish wing-back was able to dart towards goal, but his eventual shot was straight at a grateful Alphonse Areola who was able to turn the ball behind — you can't afford to miss chances like that when you're languishing at the foot of the standings.
Going a goal down revitalised Sheffield United to an extent, but Fulham were still in command here. Ola Aina unleashed a dipping piledriver from 25 yards and it looked destined to creep in via the stanchion, but Ramsdale somehow managed to punch it over the crossbar and out for a corner.
As the game entered its final ten minutes, United's desperation grew greater, but Fulham's defence held firm and any visiting attacks proved fruitless. It's a simply huge victory for the hosts, who in turn deal serious damage to the aspirations of their visitors.
Takeaways from the match
Cottagers in control
Fulham deserved this victory. Their 65% of possession and 15 shots to the four of their opponents indicates the superiority of the home side here.
Perhaps Parker will be disappointed his side didn't put the game to bed earlier after enjoying a number of chances in the first half, but the three points are all that will matter to the Cottagers as they now move within three points of Newcastle — the team they play on the final day.
Blades easily second best
They got themselves into a couple of good positions, but more often saw the flag raised for offside than they managed to trouble Areola in Fulham's goal and were stuck under the cosh for large spells of the match.
This felt like a real must-win for Wilder and his Yorkshire outfit; their hopes of securing a third successive season in the Premier League have taken a really harsh hit tonight.
Fulham: Areola; Aina, Andersen, Adarabioyo, Robinson; Loftus-Cheek, Reed, Anguissa, Lookman (Decordova-Reid 90'); Cavaleiro (Tete 76'), Maja (Lemina 85').
Unused subs: Rodak, Odoi, Hector, Ream, Bryan, Onomah.
Sheffield United: Ramsdale; Basham (Norwood 50'), Jagielka (Bogle 79'), Bryan; Baldock, Lundstram (McGoldrick 73'), Ampadu, Fleck, Stevens; McBurnie, Sharp.
Unused subs: Foderingham, Lowe, Osborn, Brunt, Burke, Brewster.
Following the all-important victory here, Fulham make the relatively short trip to Crystal Palace next Sunday.
Meanwhile, Sheffield United return to their home of Bramall Lane on the same day, when league champions Liverpool will be their visitors.