Dave Seddon's verdict: Fulham 2 Preston North End 0 - Lilywhites undo their hard work to gift Cottagers victory
Preston kept Aleksandar Mitrovic under lock and key but shot themselves in the foot to hand Fulham victory in this promotion clash.
Extinguishing the threat of Mitrovic was a big part of North End’s game plan and it had to be taking into account the Serbian’s record over the last few years against them.
The hard work went to pot though, as two goals were handed to the Cottagers on a silver platter.
One was gift wrapped with a huge bow, David Nugent heading into his own goal as he tried to clear a corner.
They were generous too in stoppage-time as a chance to equalise at one end was turned into a second hosts’ goal at the other in a matter of seconds.
PNE substitute Josh Harrop had a goalmouth full of team-mates to aim for when he took a 95th minute corner.
He scuffed it, the ball was cleared and Fulham turned defence into attack to score on the counter.
So for the second time in five days Alex Neil’s men lost to a promotion rival, defeat at Craven Cottage following last Tuesday night’s reverse to West Bromwich Albion.
Both were by the same scoreline but that is where the similarity ended really.
Whereas the Baggies had controlled proceedings at The Hawthorns, North End had much more of a say on the banks of the River Thames.
They were the better side in the first 45 minutes but frustratingly had nothing to show for their efforts.
When sides squander two or three good chances to go in front, the odds are that they will come back to haunt them.
That was the case here as an improved Fulham display combined with the gift of the two goals, kept the three points in London.
Neil wasn’t best pleased, making no attempt to hide his frustration post-match.
Much of the hard work was done by keeping Mitrovic quiet but how do you account for an own goal by your striker and later seeing a threat at one end turned into a goal down at the other?
Despite the defeat North End held on to sixth position and didn’t lose much ground directly above them.
But with how they played in the first half, what a missed opportunity this was to move up a place and put some more daylight between themselves and the cluster of clubs chasing.
PNE have four matches before the international break later this month, three of them at Deepdale.
To stay at the heart of the pack they need a healthy return from that quartet.
In all they have 10 more games to play, winning six would take them to 74 points which should be enough.
What North End can’t afford are too many days like Saturday when chances went begging.
Admittedly they did get the ball in the net when Sean Maguire tapped in a flick from Nugent at the right end.
The flag went up to rule that out, extending Maguire’s goalless run to a 15th match.
The Irishman had scored in his three previous meetings with Fulham, the fact this one didn’t count being typical of his fortune in the last few months.
Some bad luck had come North End’s way in the build-up to the game, Ben Pearson ruled out for a month with a hamstring injury.
He has sustained it in the West Bromwich defeat but the extent was only discovered by a scan late last week.
Neil replaced him in the side with Brad Potts, this a first league start since December 29 for the former Barnsley man.
Potts was given the No.10 role and Alan Browne asked to do the type of job Pearson does in the holding midfield position.
For spells of the game, Potts looked something like the player he did when he first arrived at PNE in January last year.
He pressed well, travelled with the ball effectively and contributed to a first-half performance from North End which should have yielded a lot more than it did.
Potts effectiveness was less after the interval, partly due to getting a kick on his Achilles which left him in some discomfort.
What Preston’s first-half display highlighted again was a lack of punch up front.
Nugent was in the striker’s role and linked play well but little was seen of him in the box where it really mattered.
Jayden Stockley was tried up there for the last 25 minutes but had no joy.
With Maguire and Tom Barkhuizen used out wide, that was it in terms of options down the middle.
If North End do fall short in May, the last two transfer windows will be regarded as a missed opportunity to have brought in a striker.
Their approach does put an onus on midfielders and wide players to score but goals from the centre forwards have been in short supply.
They should have gone in front in the seventh minute and it would have been a fine one on the counter-attack too.
Ben Davies won the ball at the back and fed it forward to Nugent who in turn swept a pass out to Barkhuizen down the right-wing.
He sped towards the byline and pulled it back, keeper Marek Rodak attempting to cut the cross out but knocking it into Potts’ path.
The midfielder got a shot away which Michael Hector managed to block and take behind for a corner.
Other chances came and went – two for Browne and a header from Patrick Bauer.
At the other end Bauer did a job on Mitrovic, a scorer of seven goals in five games since 2016 against PNE.
The hard work started to unravel in the 58th minute when Fulham scored.
Anthony Knockaert sent over a corner from the right which flicked off Nugent’s head at the near post and flew over Declan Rudd into the far corner of the net.
Norh End toiled to find an equaliser, Andrew Hughes having a late header which Rodek pushed out.
Fulham swept forward from Harrop’s cleared corner for their second goal.
Aboubakar Kamara raced from his own half, played it into Ivan Cavaleiro in the box, took the return pass and fired home.