Cardiff City’s hopes of Premier League survival are hanging by the thinnest of threads after Ryan Babel’s beautiful curling strike consigned them to defeat at already-relegated Fulham.
Chances were scarce in a disjointed first half which included a long delay as Fulham’s Denis Odoi was taken off on a stretcher after he was accidentally kicked in the head by his team-mate Maxime Le Marchand.
The entertainment improved after the break, with both sides playing with greater urgency and creating several chances to score before Babel struck with a brilliant first-time effort from 20 yards to break Cardiff hearts.
Neil Warnock’s side rallied with a flurry of late efforts on goal which prompted a string of fine saves from Fulham goalkeeper Diego Rico – but those exertions proved in vain.
Cardiff remain 18th in the Premier League table, three points behind Brighton – and with a goal difference 14 worse than the Seagulls – with only two games to play this season.
Therefore, the Bluebirds could effectively be relegated – barring a staggering sequence of results and swing in goal difference – if Brighton beat Newcastle in Saturday’s late kick-off.
Cardiff’s valiant effort in vain
Written off at the start of the season, and dealt several setbacks over the course of the campaign, Cardiff seem to have been clinging on to their Premier League status for what seems like an age.
They simply would not go away – a pugnacious outfit built in the image of their manager Warnock, unwilling to follow Fulham by making an instant return to the Championship.
However, this result might mean the Bluebirds will be unable to avoid that fate.
As ever, they battled valiantly and defended diligently but, as has often been the case this season, they lacked the quality to really trouble their opponents.
Set-pieces seemed Cardiff’s likeliest route to a goal as they struggled to conjure the kind of nous and touch required to fashion scoring opportunities in open play.
With Storm Hannah still making itself felt with blustery winds around Craven Cottage, the Welsh side looked to exploit the conditions by sending a series of free-kicks and throws swirling into the Fulham box.
Following one free-kick launched from the halfway line by Lee Peltier, captain Sean Morrison was manhandled by Aleksandar Mitrovic but had his appeals for a penalty ignored by referee Chris Kavanagh.
It was not until they fell behind that Cardiff truly threatened, Junior Hoilett hitting the crossbar with one effort before Morrison and Danny Ward forced Rico into action.
But by then the writing was already on the wall.
Cardiff confounded expectations by winning promotion in the first place and, even by Warnock and his players’ odds-defying standards, avoiding relegation from their current predicament would be an escape act of Houdini proportions.
These two sides were adversaries before they were locked in this battle to avoid relegation, having both vied for automatic promotion from the Championship last season.
Fulham were widely regarded as the neutrals’ choice with their aesthetically-pleasing style. However, it was Cardiff who prevailed with their less attractive but ultimately more effective approach, with Fulham eventually promoted via the play-offs.
That clash of styles prompted a fair bit of debate – and bickering – between the two sets of fans and, while most of it was good natured, there was a sense at Craven Cottage that Fulham’s supporters wanted their side to drag Cardiff down to the second tier with them.
They had reason to be confident of doing so because, after their relegation was confirmed on 2 April following a ninth successive defeat, the Cottagers actually won their matches against Everton and Bournemouth.
On this occasion, they initially reverted to the kind of form which saw them sink into the bottom three; struggling to play with any fluency as they seemed unsettled by Cardiff’s uncompromising approach.
The home side improved in the second half and, after Mitrovic squandered a handful of chances, Babel sent his dipping, arcing 20-yard shot over the despairing dive of Neil Etheridge to give interim manager Scott Parker a third successive victory.
If anyone was in any doubt about how much Fulham’s fans enjoyed beating Cardiff and contributing to their probable relegation, they offered an unequivocal answer in the form of their gleeful chant: “You’re going down with the Fulham.”
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