In an enthralling contest between two of the Championship's strongest sides, Nottingham Forest came out on top against Premier League-bound Fulham thanks to a first-half goal from Philip Zinckernagel.
The Watford loanee capitalised on a mix-up between Marek Rodak and Tim Ream to put the Reds ahead 15 minutes into the contest. The hosts at Craven Cottage had chances thereafter, dominating the second-half but ultimately failing to find an equaliser which, due to AFC Bournemouth's draw at Swansea City, would have all but mathematically clinched them the title tonight. As it stands, they can still fall second by a point if worse comes to worst.
The result does, however, put Forest firmly in the running for automatic promotion, climbing into 3rd and just three points behind Bournemouth. Fulham, meanwhile, remain at the summit of the table and will be crowned champions should they gain just one more point from their final three games.
Story of the game
Forest may have been 4th in the standings prior to kick-off tonight but, since Steve Cooper's arrival in September at least, these have been the two form sides in the Championship — the Reds' tally of 69 points since the Welshman took charge was bettered only by the Whites, surpassing that of those above them in Huddersfield Town (63) and Bournemouth (60).
After Jack Colback registered the first shot of the match, a sighter from range which was straight down the throat of Rodak, news soon filtered the ground that Swansea had taken the lead against 2nd-placed Bournemouth meaning, as it stood, a draw would be sufficient for Fulham to clinch the league title tonight. "We're gonna win the league!" bellowed the Craven Cottage faithful.
Then, news filtered around the ground that Swansea had taken the lead against Bournemouth — if that result stayed so, Fulham were set to become champions with just a draw here.
This match had a frenetic pace from the outset. Fulham had two chances in quick succession when, first, a clever corner routine worked the ball to Ream on the six-yard line but, with his back to the goal, the captain couldn't adjust his feet in time to get the shot away; then, Neco Williams floated a cross into Aleksandar Mitrovic who, surprisingly, mistimed his jump slightly and headed way over Brice Samba's goal.
Good work by Zinckernagel down the right flank enabled him to feed Brennan Johnson in the box who in turn fired across the face of goal, but it was just too far in front of Sam Surridge for the striker to touch in at the back post.
Before long, it was 2-0 to Swansea. The chant this time was "Campiones!" and that's exactly what Fulham looked set to be if they could just hold out for a point against an admittedly superb Forest side.
However, that scheme suffered a setback just 15 minutes in as the visitors took the lead. A through-ball from Surridge caused indecision between Rodak and Ream and it was pounced on by Zinckernagel as the 27-year old nipped in between the two to poke home from close range.
Fulham had the chance to equalise almost instantaneously, the Forest defence caught napping as Harrison Reed strode forward before setting but Fabio Carvalho on the edge of the box, but the teenager's effort landed right in Samba's grateful palms.
Just before the half-hour mark, an in-swinging corner from Harry Wilson caused all sorts of problems among the Forest defence and, when Mitrovic rose highest of the lot, it looked for all the world that he'd head home as he has on countless times so far this campaign, however a crucial intervention from Steve Cook prevented Samba from being called into action.
On the whole, Forest were doing a good job of frustrating their hosts and depriving them of chances to level the scores. The closest Fulham came for quite a lengthy period was when a Joe Bryan cross from the left was knocked down well by Mitrovic for Carvalho to run onto, but he sliced his effort high and wide of the top corner.
With half-time looming, a tussle between Mitrovic and Djed Spence saw Keith Stroud award Fulham a free-kick 20 yards from goal. Wilson looked to be stepping up to take it but instead teed up the Serb who attempted a curler into the far corner, whistling marginally past the far post with Samba rooted to the spot. And with that, Forest's lead lasted into the interval.
The first chance after the break fell Fulham's way when a neat-one two between Bobby Decordova-Reid and Wilson gave the former the opportunity to strike from the edge of the area, but the forward got underneath the ball and failed to test the Forest goalkeeper.
It looked as though head coach Marco Silva had told his side to ramp up the intensity. Next, Neco Williams supplied a dangerous cross into the area before a crucial fingertip from Samba put the ball at an awkward height for Mitrovic waiting to meet it at the back post, and the striker headed over from close range.
After weathering a miniature storm from their hosts, Forest should have doubled their lead. Ream misjudged an aerial ball which gave Johnson the freedom of the right flank as he charged forwards before supplying a superb ball across the box for Surridge who looked certain to score, but Rodak did brilliantly to smother the striker's feet and, somehow, held onto it to deny the 23-year old a second bite at the cherry.
Moments later, Johnson was front and centre again as he twinkle-toed his way into the box, sold Ream with a body-feint and struck at goal — the effort was blocked by Bryan and Forest were certain it had touched the full-back's hand, however their appeals were waved away by Stroud.
On the hour mark, it became 3-0 to Swansea. Results had fallen Fulham's way and now all they needed to do to claim the trophy tonight was find an equaliser. That was easier said than done against this remarkably resolute Forest back-line, however.
They came agonisingly close when incisive build-up allowed Carvalho to turn on the edge of the box and arc a pinpoint curling effort towards the top corner, but Bamba produced a fine flying stop to keep it out.
Fulham were getting nearer and nearer. A mazy run down the right flank and into the box from Wilson gave the winger the perfect opportunity to strike at goal on his favoured left foot but, instead, he laid it off for Mitrovic who, caught somewhat off-guard, produced a heavy first touch which allowed Joe Worrall to nip in and clear.
Their ramped-up attacking intent did, however, run the risk of leaving them exposed at the back, as indicated when a storming run from Richie Laryea saw him run freely to the byline before setting up Johnson on the penalty spot, but Tosin Adarabioyo's foot deflected the ball just wide of the target with Rodak helpless.
Fulham's final chance of the encounter came when a lofted free-kick from Wilson was volleyed towards the target by Adarabioyo, however his failure to direct it on target meant their title celebrations will have to wait for the time being — however the news that Bournemouth had scored a 90th-minute equaliser to complete a remarkable comeback in south Wales meant that an equaliser wouldn't have sufficed regardless.
Fulham: Rodak; Williams (Tete 77'), Tosin, Ream [c], Bryan (Muniz 77'); Seri, Reed (Cairney 58'); Wilson, Carvalho, Decordova-Reid; Mitrovic.
Unused subs: Gazzaniga, Hector, Chalobah, Kebano.
Nottingham Forest: Samba; Worrall [c], Cook, McKenna; Spence, Yates, Garner, Colback (Laryea 74'); Johnson, Surridge (Cafu 73'), Zinckernagel (Lolley 66').
Unused subs: Horvath, Figueiredo, Silva, Mighten.
Referee: Keith Stroud
Following defeat here, Fulham are next in action on Bank Holiday Monday when they host Luton Town.
Forest, meanwhile, return to their City Ground home to host Swansea City on Saturday.