It says much for Fulham’s progress under Marco Silva that they dropped their standards and still reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. There were a few wobbles, a few worrying moments, but the final score felt right. Leeds had simply not done enough in the final third and, although there were some encouraging signs for Javi Gracia, he will demand better finishing when his struggling side return to west London to face Chelsea on Saturday.
Gracia will know Leeds need more of an edge if they are going to stay in the Premier League. Their away form remains wretched – only two wins on the road all season – while their lack of oomph in both boxes is a worry.
Fulham, who are dreaming of European qualification a season after winning promotion, were far more decisive. They could rely on two moments of class – one from João Palhinha, the second from Manor Solomon – and nobody should underestimate their chances of making it to Wembley.
Admittedly, Fulham’s attempt to reach the last eight for the first time since 2010 began in unconvincing fashion. The touches were loose, the passing not much better, and the initial temptation was to assume that Silva’s decision to make seven changes was going to backfire.
“The first goal gave us the confidence we needed,” the Fulham manager said. “The second half was different. We cannot be winning at home and be so unbalanced in certain areas. They created more than we would like.”
Leeds would pay for not making more of their promising spells. After 14 minutes Georginio Rutter thought he had his first goal for Leeds, only for Weston McKennie to be penalised for a soft push on Harry Wilson. “Very, very soft,” was Gracia’s verdict on the foul, though the Spaniard was more concerned with his team’s finishing.
There was more frustration when Rutter headed against the post, reward for a bustling performance, in place of Patrick Bamford, eluding the French striker, and it was hard to believe that Fulham were ahead at half-time.
The opening goal had arrived moments after more sloppiness from Fulham. An attack had broken down at the feet of Antonee Robinson and Silva had turned away in anger. Yet Tyler Adams was not accurate enough with a pass to Marc Roca, who was caught out when Palhinha seized possession, advanced and spotted Illan Meslier off his line.
The midfielder, who has been outstanding since joining Fulham last summer, was too clever. Palhinha was 25 yards from goal when he opened up his body and his shot, beautifully bent into the top corner, left Meslier’s positioning completely exposed.
Fulham, who saw Sasa Lukic tire in midfield on his full debut, had needed Palhinha to take charge; to blend his ball-winning abilities with a subtle touch. But Leeds were undeterred. Roca forced an instant save from Marek Rodak and Cédric Soares had his hands full with Wilfried Gnonto on the left.
Gnonto is such a talent. The winger had an equaliser disallowed for offside – Rodak had made a fine save from Rasmus Kristensen – and he threatened again at the start of the second half.
Leeds came back for more, Rutter testing Rodak. It all added up to one thing: another Fulham goal. “I am really disappointed,” Gracia said, the elation of opening his reign with victory on Saturday long gone. “We were a little bit unlucky. If you don’t score you don’t have any chance.”
Fulham showed Leeds how to finish. The move for the clincher began when Aleksandar Mitrovic released Wilson on the right. Fulham were able to send in a couple of crosses and expectation rose when a clearance dropped to Solomon on the left.
This was Solomon territory: space opening up, defenders backing off, the ball on his right foot. The Israeli swerved inside, found Mitrovic and moved on to the striker’s lay-off. The finish, a vicious curler into the far corner, was a replica of Solomon’s goal against Wolves.
It was not to be for Leeds, who have not been in the last eight for 20 years. There were more near misses, Crysencio Summerville and Brenden Aaronson going close, but Fulham held firm. “We are humble enough to understand we are not favourites,” Silva said. “We know our history in this competition is not great. We are changing so many things at this club.”