Fulham missed the chance to extend their lead at the top of the Championship table as they were held to a 1-1 draw away at Preston North End on Saturday.
The Cottagers came into the game in uncertain shape after a stalemate against Derby County earlier this week, and with illness spreading throughout the squad.
Fulham dominated early proceedings, probing the home side’s defence right from the off. The North End back line was only able to stand strong for just shy of 15 minutes until a rare Tim Ream goal opened the score.
But it was the home side which dominated the game from this point, as they pushed hard for an equaliser. Preston’s pressure finally told when substitute Ched Evans nodded home from close range in the 72nd minute.
The goal was not without controversy, however, as the ball hit Emil Riis’ hand before it went in.
Marco Silva, Fulham manager, was not happy with his team’s performance. He said: “First half we played in the way we wanted to play.
“Second half, we didn’t play…we didn’t perform in the way we should do and the way we have prepared. It was a bad performance from ourselves.”
He also criticised the referee for allowing Evans’ goal to stand, and demanded that more be done to protect players from dangerous challenges.
Fulham started brightly and took advantage of an error by North End defender Josh Earl who fouled Denis Odoi in the 14th minute near the right-hand touchline.
The resulting free-kick was whipped in by Jean Michael Seri with fierce pace, and found its way to captain Ream who stabbed it home just inside the six yard box.
It was Fulham’s 12th goal from a set-piece this season – the highest in the Championship, and Ream’s first for almost four years.
North End had some bright moments after conceding, with Ben Whiteman almost putting Riis through with a long ball from his own half, only to be interrupted by resolute defending from Ream.
The home side continued to grow into the game, and quickly started to dominate despite Fulham’s lead. This continued into the second half, as Riis forced a smart save from Fulham goalkeeper Marek Rodak after he cut inside and fired the ball towards the bottom corner.
The game livened up in the second half, with Preston players calling for Fulham left-back Antonee Robinson to be sent off after a rough tackle on Tom Barkhuizen.
It was substitute Evans who made the difference when he bundled the ball into the back of the net with 20 minutes to go.
Replays show the ball coming off Riis’ hand before going in, making it a goal that almost certainly would have been ruled out if Championship fixtures used VAR.
Preston North End head coach Frankie McVoy said: “I felt we put Fulham under a lot of pressure. We knew it would be a tough game for us, we were more aggressive in the second half and credit to the players.
“I thought it was the least we deserved over the course of the game… I’m just delighted we’ve picked up a point today.”
The result leaves Preston in 14th, while Fulham stay on top of the table with 43 points. Fulham will be back at home on Friday with a top-two clash against Bournemouth, while Preston travel to Blackburn Rovers on Saturday.