Although Preston North End were left empty-handed result wise, they proved a point another way in the manner they ran Fulham close.
Slavisa Jokanovic brought his Cottagers side to Deepdale fearing a bit of a kicking, the Serbian having labelled PNE as ‘one of the more aggressive teams in the competition’ at his pre-match press call.
This is Jokanovic, a Serb who stands 6ft 2in and during his playing days operated as a sturdy defensive midfielder.
The guy has a menacing look about him, he certainly doesn’t look the sort to wince at what he sees on the pitch.
Yet in the build-up to what turned out to be an enthralling game of football, he had called into question the approach of North End.
“I’ve had the opportunity to watch some [Preston] games, and they’re on the border of the limit,” Jokanovic had said last Thursday.
“They’re going to try and stop us in a legal or illegal way, and it’s going to depend on the referee.”
Bar taking something out of the game – they deserved a point, some might argue all three – Preston answered this particular critic very well.
They pushed and pressed free-flowing Fulham by fair means and not foul.
Only one of their players was booked and the foul count over the course of the piece was 7-6 to PNE.
A kicking match it was not, both sides playing some very good football with it a decent advert for the Championship.
Alex Neil was forthright in his response to Jokanovic’s comments when asked about them after the game.
“Listen, they are talking cr**, let’s be honest,” said the Preston manager.
“If you look at the stats this season, we are the sixth most fouled side in this league.
“I think we are the seventh highest team in terms of us dishing out fouls.
“So it’s just a lot of rubbish really. The way they (Fulham) play we totally counteract it by the way we play the game.
“What they were a bit scared of was that the bad men were going to hunt and run after the ball.
“Were we meant to sit off and let them play?
“I look at Slav and the size of him, surely he is not scared of Ben Pearson who is hardly that size?
“I think the first six fouls of the game, they were fouling us.
“At one point I said to the fourth official could he stop these big bad men kicking us please.”
Point made loud and clear, and although Neil is not claiming his side are angels, to have been labelled in the manner they were pre-match was wrong.
Fulham took with them on the train back to London the three points courtesy of two goals from – who else – Aleksandar Mitrovic.
The fact that the winner came during stoppage-time added to the frustration of defeat.
On the balance of play and chances, North End were hard done by.
Neil felt his side deserved to win, I would say that they definitely merited a point if not all three.
Many fans I guess would have taken a draw, such an outcome would have given them four points from two home games against teams above them in the table.
There is extra work to be done now to maintain a push for the top six, a two-result swing needed to catch Middlesbrough.
Time remains on their side, with only Derby of the teams above them to play over the last two months of the season.
Put in more performances of the ilk we saw against Fulham, then they stand a chance of the play-offs.
While this was a hard luck story in terms of how well they played, there are lessons that need to be learned in order to take the top-six challenge down to the wire.
The visitors’ late winner highlighted a couple of flaws at both ends of the pitch.
North End were bossing the closing stages but needed to use the ball better in and around the Fulham box.
If you are not able to get a shot away, keep possession and get into an area where it is difficult for the opposition to build an attack from.
Jokanovic’s men worked the ball up field from a North End attack and were to force a throw-in.
Darnell Fisher, excellent to this point, turned his back on the play and didn’t realise the throw had been taken quickly.
His focus only returned as the ball was played over for Mitrovic to head home.
The Serbia international was aided by a slight loss of footing by Ben Davies.
To label a slip on wet turf as a mistake on Davies’ part would be most unfair.
His performance was as good from a PNE defender as I have seen for a long while.
I lost count of the number of times he intercepted balls into the box and cleared his lines, seeing the danger early and being proactive.
Neil reasoned Preston played better on Saturday in defeat than they had done in beating Bolton and Bristol City in the few days before.
Maybe that is taking a bit away from what was a very good display in both, but it was hard not to be impressed by what his side produced in this one.
PNE started and finished the first half the stronger, with Fulham looking threatening in the middle section.
Callum Robinson, Fisher and Sean Maguire got shots away in the first half.
Declan Rudd made a fine save from Floyd Ayite early in the second period before the game burst open in the final 21 minutes.
Mitrovic swept home a low cross from Cyrus Christie in the 69th minute to give the Londoners the lead.
A good save from Marcus Bettinelli denied Davies an equaliser six minutes later but PNE were level soon after.
Ben Pearson got the ball in the right channel and lifted a cross into the box, Maguire meeting it with a header which slipped through the gloves of Bettinelli into the net.
That looked to have earned them a draw, however Fulham snatched the lead back with the game in stoppage-time.
Fisher switching-off afforded Tom Cairney space in the box to cross for Mitrovic to head past Rudd.
That was a sixth goal in four games against Preston for the on-loan Newcastle man.