Without the bruising brilliance of Aleksandar Mitrovic, Scott Parker arrived in south Wales in need of inspiration from elsewhere to edge Fulham closer to an immediate Premier League return.
At either end of the second half in this play-off semi-final first leg, his call was answered in stunning style.
After Josh Onomah’s magical run and finish put Fulham in the driving seat, Neeskens Kebano’s last-gasp free-kick has them speeding out of sight en route to Wembley.
Certainly, Neil Harris felt afterwards that the visitors celebrated ‘like they’d won the tie.’
But Parker hit back: ‘Neil has said a lot over the last week,’ he said. ‘I just see a professional team that understood that there is only half of this tie done.’
This was tough on Cardiff, who had their chances but who face an uphill battle after the second goal.
‘A right kick in the nuts,’ Harris said.
No second-tier side has ever overturned a two-goal first-leg deficit but Harris insisted: ‘We’re capable of clawing this back.’
Their task won’t be any easier if Mitrovic returns from the hamstring injury that kept him out here.
Without their 26-goal talisman, Fulham looked short of ideas until four minutes after the break, when Onomah collected possession 18 yards out, held off one challenge before beating two more and sneaking the ball in at the near post.
He ran straight to Parker, whose smile grew wider after their brilliant second. But it was Cardiff who should have drawn first blood.
Twice in quick succession Robert Glatzel was denied – first by Michael Hector’s brilliant challenge and then by goalkeeper Marek Rodak.
At the other end, Tom Cairney’s curling shot crept past the post before the breakthrough came.
From there, Fulham piled on further pressure. And when Cairney was fouled 25 yards out, Kebano fired home the killer second.
Even if the omens say it is. I’ve heard a statistic that no team has ever come from 2-0 down after the first leg in a Championship play-off semi-final to progress.
But that is now what Cardiff must do if they are to keep alive their hopes of returning to the Premier League.
When is that second leg?
It’s a quick turnaround, with the Craven Cottage meeting taking place on Thursday night. That’s all from me though. Thanks for following this evening.
… but he could still do little about Kebano being able to pick out the top corner. Here is the Fulham’s midfielder’s excellent set-piece that puts the Cottagers well in control of this semi-final.
Neeskens Kebano fires Fulham two goals ahead in South Wales
📺 Watch Cardiff v Fulham now live on Sky Sports Football pic.twitter.com/RPV8BnL3V6
And you would have to say they deserve their 2-0 lead they will carry back with them to Craven Cottage.
Cardiff edged a tight first half but following the break there was only ever one team in it, and that’s before you get tho those excellent goals from Josh Onomah and Neeskens Kebano. Those two already look like they belong in the Premier League…
90+4min: Killing time, Scott Parker throws on Denis Odoi for Kebano.
90+1min: And in the first of the three added minutes, from the free-kick Neeskens Kebano curls a beauty into the near post top corner. They have the second goal they fully deserve.
90min: Into the final minute and Fulham have a free-kick on the edge of the box after Tom Cariney is brought down.
87min: We are only approaching the end of the first leg so it is not quite ‘kitchen sink’ stuff needed yet from Cardiff but they do have a half-chance here, with Sean Morrison just missing out with a touch after the ball is played into the Fulham box.
84min: After such an organised first half showing that featured smart counter attacking play, Cardiff have been really disappointing in this second half.
They have offered very little in the way of attacking play, and have struggled more in trying to contain Fulham. You would not begrudge a second goal for Scott Parker’s team here.
81min: Here is that Fulham switch as Aboubakar Kamara replaces Anthony Knockaert.
79min: Like a similar position in the first half though, the set-piece comes to nothing. Fulham are now preparing their first switch.
76min: Fulham are still on top though as Leandro Bacuna is booked for pulling back Neeskens Kebano on the left side of the box near the touchline.
73min: With Vaulks now on the pitch, Cardiff do have a long throw merchant in their ranks. He’s having a good impact too, with one of his ‘chucks’ into the box leading to Marek Rodak having to make a smart save at his near post.
70min: Here come Vaulks, Murphy and Ward as Robert Glatzel, Nathaniel Mendez-Laing and Junior Hoilett depar.
68min: As Neeskens Kebano fires a 25-yard free-kick just wide, that brings up drinks and most likely a triple Cardiff change.
66min: Will Vaulks, Josh Murphy and Danny Ward look like they are preparing to come on for Cardiff in an attempt to find an equaliser following Onomah’s strike which you can watch in all its glory below.
WHAT A GOAL ⭐️
Josh Onomah produces a piece of magic to put Fulham ahead
📺 Watch Cardiff v Fulham now live on Sky Sports Football pic.twitter.com/oKKdiRp0Zw
63min: Cardiff subs are warming up now, and they will be needed sooner rather than later. Neil Harris’s team are being overrun in this half as Fulham continue to dominate proceedings.
60min: Fulham have taken it up a level in this half and Josh Onomah is running the show. He lays the ball off to Bobby De Cordova-Reid on the edge of the box but the striker’s effort flies over the crossbar. Arms thrown behind his head, he knows he should have done a lot better than that.
55min: The bad news for Cardiff is once Fulham have gone in front in this campaign, they have rarely let the lead go. Only Leeds can match just the six points they have dropped from winning positions this term.
52min: Fulham are looking to press on for a second goal now they have their noses in front. It is worth nothing though that away goals count for nothing in the play-offs. The way it should be everywhere? I’ve never been a fan of that rule.
49min: I was not expecting it to come this quickly though! Josh Onomah picks up the ball with his back to goal on the edge of the box, but after a sharp turn he accerates into the box past one defender, jinks right past another and then slots home low past Alex Smithies. Brilliant goal!
48min: Hopes of a goal in this half? I still back we will see a breakthrough, especially as these teams have not shared a goalless encounter since 1974.
As expected Fulham have dominated much of the play but it is Cardiff who have had the best chance of the half, only for Michael Hector’s last gasp challenge to prevent Robert Glatzel from tapping home.
Scott Parker’s team came to life a bit more late in the half though, with Alex Smithies doing well to deny Josh Onomah while Tom Cairney struck the outside of the post.
Could be a slow burner this.
45+2min: I thought that was in! Tom Cairney collects a pass from 25 yards out before he tries to bend a shot into the corner that clips the outside of the post, hits the support post behind the goal before rolling behind the net. That was damn close. Smithies looked beaten.
45+1min: Into three extra minutes and that Fulham free-kick is woefully wasted as Anthony Knockaert’s cross hopelessly sails over the crossbar for a goal kick.
45min: Christie does finally find space down the right and he draws a foul from Hoilett outside the box near the touchline, leading to a booking for the Cardiff forward.
42min: Really impressed with Cardiff’s defending so far. Aside from Junior Hoilett losing the run of Onomah in the previous Fulham chance, they have nullified the attack of Scott Parker’s side.
Cyrus Christie and Joe Bryan have been unable to make the most of the space offered to them on the flanks as they attack from full-back.
39min: Now Fulham are cooking! Kebano floats a superb hanging cross towards the far post but Josh Onomah’s volley from a tight angle is excellently turned behind by Alex Smithies who narrowed the angles after coming off his line.
36min: Counter attacking is not really the Fulham way but it has enabled them to finally get behind the Cardiff backline. Neeskens Kebano gets deep into the box on the left side but his cross is unable to pick out a team-mate. Yes, that is as good as it has got for the Cottagers.
33min: Scott Parker is pacing up and down the touchline and stroking his chin. I’m no body language expert but he doesn’t look happy with his side and is cutting a rather anxious figure. His side have not really tested Cardiff as of yet.
30min: Cardiff on the counter attack are also proving a threat. However this one leads to a rather easy stop for Rodak in the Fulham goal as he gathers Robert Glatzel’s 25-yard strike which lacked power.
27min: Fulham back in possession on the restart. Still little prospect of them breaching a watertight looking Cardiff defence though.
24min: Time for drinks. Cardiff will be happier with the first quarter (yes, I went there) with Fulham not really being able to get into any attacking flow. The two best chances have fallen for the hosts, with only excellent defending from Hector keeping Scott Parker’s team level.
23min: Reed may have recovered from that earlier knock but now Fulham have another concern as Joe Bryan has gone down holding his knee following an awkward lunge for the ball. After a short assessment, it looks like he will also be able to continue.
20min: Minor handbags between Lenadro Bacuna and Josh Onomah who following a physical duel for possession end up grabbing each other’s shirts in fury.
The situation quickly calms though and the referee is happy to just warn both before play resumes. The sensible approach taken by the match official Geoff Eltringham there.
16min: Another Cardiff chance! Once more Hoilett is found inside the box, although this time he squares a short pass for Glatzel.
The Cardiff forward hits a first time effort but it is too central and Rodak is equal to it.
13min: Chance for Cardiff! Junior Hoilett is found in space on the right, and after cutting inside onto his left foot lets fly with a shot that is only parried into the six-yard box by Marek Rodak.
Alert to the danger is Michael Hector, whose sliding challenge not only prevents Robert Glatzel from tapping home the rebound, but also sees him come away with possession to clear the danger for his side.
11min: As expected Fulham are starting to get the ball down and play now but Neil Harris won’t be concerned on the Cardiff touchline and in truth the hosts look comfortable at the back right now.
8min: Fulham getting on top now. Bobby De Cordova-Reid puts in a dangerous low cross towards the far post for Neeskens Kebano but Leandro Bacuna is alert enough to clear the danger for a corner – one the hosts comfortably deal with.
5min: Scott Parker’s frown says it all. He has already lost Mitrovic before this game and now he could lose another key figure here as Harrison Reed has gone down injured.
Fulham physios are on the pitch attending to his right leg, but after a dab of the magic sponge it looks like he will be able to continue.
2min: A statistic in Cardiff’s favour is they have scored the most goals from set-pieces in the Championship this term, and they win a free-kick on the corner of the Fulham box.
The ball crossed into the box though is just about cleared by the visitors.
Here is a reminder of the teams and formations:
Cardiff: Smithies, Bacuna, Morrison, Nelson, Bennett, Pack, Ralls, Mendez-Laing, Tomlin, Hoilett, Glatzel.
Subs: Etheridge, Sanderson, Flint, Vaulks, Murphy, Paterson, Bamba, Ward, Smith.
Fulham: Rodak, Christie, Hector, Ream, Bryan, Cairney, Reed, Knockaert, Onomah, Kebano, Reid.
Subs: Bettinelli, Odoi, Mawson, McDonald, Johansen, Le Marchand, Sessegnon, Kamara, Jasper.
Referee: Geoff Eltringham (Tyne & Wear)
It’s all with Fulham really. These teams met at the Cardiff City Stadium 11 months ago in a 1-1 draw but met much more recently this month when goals from Aleksandar Mitrovic and Josh Onomah were on target in a 2-0 win for the Cottagers.
Given Fulham also finished eight point ahead of Cardiff, you would make them favourites in this tie.
That does though put the pressure on Scott Parker’s team, especially as they do not have Mitrovic available to them.
It is Fulham who will be less pleased at having to take the route through the play-offs to reach the Premier League once again.
They were just two points off reaching the top flight automatically, with Leeds United and West Bromwich Albion gaining the fast track to the Premier League instead.
They are in good form though, finishing unbeaten in their last seven games – albeit drawing two of their previous three.
Despite finishing eight points clear of Cardiff, they will have to be wary of the Bluebirds who only sneaked into the play-offs after winning their last three games.
Sneaking a little under the radar yesterday among the final day fallout of the Premier League was the other first leg semi-final between Swansea and Brentford. Just the one goal at the Liberty Stadium, so all to play for heading into the second leg on Wednesday.
It’s a relatively mild one too at around 18 degrees Celsius. Scott Parker and his Fulham side appear to have made the journey trouble free from west London.
Just touched down in South Wales! 👋#CARFUL pic.twitter.com/xRcgD58b57
Your first Play-Off XI… ⚡️@cyruschristie, @HarrisonReed and @bobbyreid93 start! 🔀#CARFUL pic.twitter.com/RMEkWdubpR
The #Bluebirds unchanged for the first leg of our Play-Off Semi-Final. 👊#CityAsOne pic.twitter.com/ecK6mMO35C
You could not be more mistaken. In case you did not get the memo, it’s the Championship that provides all the drama these days.
In fact so good is the entertainment offered by England’s second tier, every year we get an encore in the form of the play-offs.
So good evening all and welcome to our live coverage of the first leg of the semi-final between Cardiff City and Fulham. I’m rather looking forward to this, team news coming right up..