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Fulham and Crystal Palace enjoy late-season freedom as Aleksandar Mitrovic nets brace in thrilling draw

Back in the goals: Aleksandar Mitrovic scored twice on his return to the starting lineup  (Getty Images)
Back in the goals: Aleksandar Mitrovic scored twice on his return to the starting lineup (Getty Images)

Well, this was fitting. Fulham and Crystal Palace can both be proud as their seasons approach the end, and an entertaining 2-2 draw offered just the sort of sunny Saturday afternoon release both sets of supporters were hoping for in this London derby.

There was a time when Fulham were hunting a European place in the league this season. At the same time, Palace couldn’t stop losing under Patrick Vieira and were staring fearfully at the drop. In both cases no longer. Fulham are tenth, Palace 11th, and neither were quite good enough to win nor quite bad enough to lose here at Craven Cottage.

Aleksandar Mitrovic scored against Southampton off the bench last weekend, but this was his first start in nine games following his eight-match ban for shoving referee Chris Kavanagh. In so many ways here at Craven Cottage, he was back with a bang.

Welcome back to the Premier League, said Joachim Andersen, as he cynically elbowed the Serb in the third minute, causing a bloodied nose. Andersen avoided punishment, but Mitrovic was soon wearing a nose bud that left him looking like a tooth had grown in the wrong place.

It took just five minutes for chants of “There’s only one Roy Hodgson” to break out from Fulham fans in the Hammersmith End. He’s working wonders back at Palace now, but once upon a time he was guiding Fulham to a Europa League final.

Few people at this Hodgson derby will have had anything less than the utmost respect for the 75-year-old. Who knows, he may well be back again next season.

So much at Palace is up in the air ahead of next season. Hodgson still at the club? Possibly, possibly not. Wilfried Zaha still at the club? Possibly, possibly not. It makes planning meaningfully for the long-term incredibly difficult — yet it seems Palace have made peace with the unknowns and simply decided to enjoy themselves at the season’s end. Survival is confirmed, and Eberechi Eze has decided to enjoy it.

From a Fulham corner, Eze carried the ball, cut past Tom Cairney with a gorgeous turn that opened play up, and slipped Odsonne Edouard in to hammer into the top corner past Bernd Leno. A breakneck counter with a net-breaker to finish it off.

In the final minute of half, Harry Wilson somewhat manufactured a penalty for himself by falling over Tyrick Mitchell’s admittedly outstretched leg. As Mitrovic stepped up, you could sense the nerves among the Fulham faithful but not-so-hopeful. Mitrovic had missed half of his six spot-kicks so far this season, but duly battered the ball high into the net.

And it appeared this match may prove to be all about the Serb when he produced a simply stunning bullet header from Willian’s free-kick to put the home side in front after the interval. Just as stunning was Sam Johnstone’s finger-tip save moments later to deny Willian a trademark curling goal.

There was more to come in this afternoon of fun in the sun, though. Hodgson’s side clambered back level through their least likely source — captain Joel Ward scoring his first goal since February 2019. The right-back, at the second attempt, stabbed past Leno from a Michael Olise free-kick.

With both sides left with nothing to play for at this stage of the season, a draw felt apt. And on the balance of play, it also felt fair.