Ruben Loftus-Cheek denied at death for Fulham in draw at Brighton


This match was little more than a box-ticking exercise. It conformed to expectations in every possible sense and left everyone back where they started: in the thick of a relegation fight that one of these sides, perhaps both, will eventually escape at a snail’s pace.

Nobody who predicted a tidy, compact but utterly toothless draw can feel too smug because that outcome seemed obvious from the outset. Brighton and Fulham barely laid a glove on each other at Craven Cottage last month and that was hardly an outlier given they had drawn 10 times between them since late November. They are both well-drilled, neat, orderly and, when they enter the box, utterly powderpuff. Put together over their two meetings it has made for a kind of crushing competence and, while Graham Potter’s side had the better chances to put eight points’ daylight between the two on this occasion, a winner for either side would have felt out of place.

It was Fulham, on the back foot for most of the second half, who could have found one in the final minute of stoppage time. That was when Ruben Loftus-Cheek, given space to shoot at an angle beyond the far post, beat Robert Sánchez only for Lewis Dunk to save Brighton with a heroic, stretching intervention on the goalline. While nobody will care to remember the 91 preceding minutes for longer than necessary, it was the kind of action that may be rued or revelled in when the season’s fine margins are assessed in May.

“It would have been harsh on us,” reflected Graham Potter, admitting his heart was in his mouth as Loftus-Cheek took aim. “I thought overall we deserved more than the point, but you get what you get.”

Brighton’s winless run at home now extends to 14 games but, in fairness, they made most of the running after a commanding opening few minutes from Fulham. They forced Alphonse Areola into smart stops in both halves but the keeper, impressive in his command of the box throughout, should have been beaten at least once.

Perhaps the most glaring miss came from Leandro Trossard when, in the 15th minute, he was teed up smartly by Neal Maupay. Given plenty of time and space inside the box, Trossard shot low but too close to Areola, who saved with a leg. It brought about a spell in which Brighton threatened to carve their visitors open more frequently but final balls went amiss and, when Dunk rose to meet a Pascal Gross free-kick, he headed straight at Areola.

“He was big for us, and he’s going to be big,” Scott Parker said of his goalkeeper. The loanee from Paris Saint-Germain proved that again in the last 10 minutes when blocking at point-blank range from Maupay, who had connected with Joel Veltman’s cross after a sweeping move. Solly March’s follow-up was deflected over by Ola Aina and Parker could, at least, pay tribute to his players’ resilience.

“You’ve got to stay in games in this division, we stayed in it and we defended very, very well,” he continued. They were only critically exposed on one other occasion, 20 minutes from the end, when Maupay ran onto a backflick from Alexis Mac Allister and blazed over when he should at least have demanded further action from Areola. If Brighton are sucked back into the mire it will be because, when chances like that arise, they are all too often not taken.

Parker felt Fulham, who came close on the counter through Ivan Caveleiro as half-time neared, “lost our way” after the restart. They favour a possession game, as do their hosts, but found it difficult to get any foothold and would have been lucky if Loftus-Cheek’s drive had beaten Dunk. Their solace is the fact that they have a game in hand over Brighton and, with West Brom awaiting on Saturday, a path towards salvation remains.

Brighton had announced a record £67.2m loss on the morning of the game, a figure that may be small beer if the worst does befall them. “It was positive in terms of performance, attitude and character,” Potter said of their performance. “We’re disappointed not to get the three points.” In truth, though, he could not have been too surprised.