MIDDLESBROUGH’S automatic promotion have all but ended as they were beaten 4-3 by Fulham this afternoon in a dramatic second-half.
Boro were poor in the first-half and their defence was breached throughout, Ross McCormack scoring in the last minute as Boro pressed for a winner.
Three times Boro pegged the London-outfit back, Adam Reach, Dani Ayala and Kike all finding the net but McCormack’s three goals - two from the spot - and Michael Turner’s opener secured the points for Fulham.
Aitor Karanka’s side endured a sluggish first-half, Grant Leadbitter’s ambitious free-kick-cum-volley in the seventh minute their best chance until George Friend advanced from his left-back position and pushed a shot wide.
It was Fulham, with ex-Newcastle United man Danny Guthrie playing the pivot role superbly, who looked the more dangerous, £11million man Ross McCormack punting wide and high, one from open play and one from a sweetly-hit free-kick.
Interspersed between McCormack’s chances, Adam Clayton typified Boro’s nervousness when he was disposed of the ball by Guthrie on the edge of the box. Guthrie threaded a pass into space, Hugo Rodallege collected and Dimi Konstantopoulos had to palm the shot away to his left.
And then just as half-time ebbed away, the hosts scored. From a corner, the two centre-backs combined, Shaun Hutchinson knocked a head on into the path of Turner who had broke free from his marker and headed in.
Boro restarted with intent, pumped for a fight-back. Lee Tomlin ran into a wall of bodies, Albert Adomah hit wide and but Sean Kavanagh blocked a cross from reaching Patrick Bamford.
Konstantopoulos then denied Rodallega’s header from doubling the home side’s advantage, the Greek stopper superbly diving to the top-right of the goal to concede a corner, before Adomah surged forward, pulled the ball back to waiting Tomlin who could only drag a low shot to the left of the post.
Soon after, in the 55th minute, and Boro’s stretched defence was punished. Rodallega and McCormack both failed to poke home in a goalmouth melee but 60 seconds later the latter was pushed over in the box by Dani Ayala. The Scotsman converted from the spot.
In the 63rd minute Adam Reach – subbed on along with Kike and Adam Forshaw – halved the deficit. The winger ran into the middle, received Tomlin’s pass and his shot from 20 yards beat Marcus Bettinelli.
But Fulham’s two-goal lead was restored minutes after with another McCormack penalty. George Friend was the perpetrator this time, sliding in to tackle Rodallega as he looked for an extra touch before shooting. The left-back was sent off for his challenge.
In the 73rd minute, not long after Tomlin’s header was cleared off the line by Bryan Luiz, Dani Ayala atoned for his many errors by heading in Adomah’s centre to make it 3-2, the Ghanaian winger crossing after Bettinelli had punched into the winger’s path from a corner.
Bamford arrowed a chance into the side-netting as Boro continued to press, though Konstantopoulous had to gather another Rodallega effort. Bamford then met Reach’s cross but the ball agonisingly trickled across the face of goal.
The scores were almost level when Kike, Forshaw and Bamford all combined, and Ayala had space and time to curl a delightful shot from eight yards onto the cross bar. At the opposite end McCormack’s shot from an acute angle lacked precision.
The defender went even closer, Hutchinson’s clearance repelling off the Spaniard’s shin and demanding a Bettinelli save. From the ensuing corner, the ball was cleared and a deep pass found Kike who expertly headed into the top corner in the 88th minute to tie proceedings.
Boro poured forward, Forshaw driving through the middle but hitting straight into Bettinelli’s gloves. Leadbitter had a shot blocked, Kike trickled into the area but was tackled, and Hoogland had to turn away Adomah’s cross for a corner.
But disaster struck, Konstantopoulos came up for the corner, the ball was cleared, McCormack beat Tomlin and rounded the retreating Konstantopoulos to score the winner and his hat-trick.