Friday night, under the lights: the scene was set for Brighton to entrench their promotion credentials and collect another vital three points, against a Fulham side packed with quality but low on confidence. Despite possessing the prized Ross McCormack and Premier League icon Scott Parker, the West London side are floundering in the table’s lower reaches, simply unable to convert potential into points. Brighton, after a stunning late winner against Nottingham Forest, had all the momentum, and a thrilling encounter was all but guaranteed.
The game opened in a frantic manner, with both sides pressing and pushing as they strived to grab an early goal. Far from being in awe of their opponents, Fulham drove through midfield, turning tackles into chances with some sharp interchanges within the middle third. McCormack had a speculative shot comfortably saved by Stockdale after the Albion defence gave the ex-Leeds man too much room outside the penalty area, and the neon-yellow clad away side visibly grew in boldness as the half progressed.
Brighton, accustomed to pace setting at the Amex, looked techy and uncomfortable; the expectation of victory hanging heavy on their shoulders. Knowing a win would see them leapfrog Burnley into the automatic zone constricted Albion’s natural flow, and they seemed dangerously out of sorts.
But matches can transform in a second, and after James Wilson tumbled in the area under questionable pressure, Hemed stepped up to tuck away the awarded penalty with coolness at odds with the gravity of the situation.
Seconds later, it was game over. A looping free kick from Knockaert was gleefully headed home by the same man, Hemed rising highest to power in his second, the static Fulham defence doing themselves no favours as Slavisa Jokanovic watched on in despair.
Knockaert almost provided a third when a sublime piece of skill took him past two Fulham defenders, but a last ditch clearance prevented the score line from escalating further. Wilson had an excellent chance smothered by Bettinelli as Albion ran wild, and blue shirts began queuing up in the box to convert yet another wickedly swerving corner.
The second half began as the first closed, Albion dictating the tempo whilst Fulham haggardly chased shadows. On the 53rd minute, Brighton surged into an unassailable lead: Bruno, unmarked the backpost, brought down a corner with an attacker’s composure, looked up, and hammered home a deserved third. With a celebration to match the finish, Albion’s most consistent performer ensured their promotion touch-paper was well and truly lit.
McCormack missed a golden opportunity to ignite a fightback, blasting over after a fine cutback from Dembele. Fredericks encapsulated a miserable night for the away side with a wild shot when well placed in the final third.
Hemed was denied his third by the legs of Bettinelli, Wilson creating the chance with a surging run and inch-perfect through ball, the keeper expertly narrowing the angle and blocking the goal-bound shot.
Stockdale made another flying save to stop Hyndman’s dipping shot finding the top corner, and the game perhaps surprisingly retained an air of excitement despite the foregone conclusion, with both goalkeepers continually called into action.
Hemed ecstatically secured his hat-trick in controversial fashion, deflecting home a shot from what appeared to be an offside position, looking a mixture of puzzled and overjoyed when the lineman’s flag failed to materialise.
Knockaert nearly added gloss to the score-line, forcing Bettinelli into another sprawling save, and sub Sidwell had an effort cleared off the line as Fulham’s defence went AWOL.
Knockaert finally got his name on the scoresheet with a sumptuous finish, cutting inside and rippling the net with a spectacular shot from 25 yards.
Sidwell should have made it six, Bruno’s flat cross somehow finding Bettinelli and not the goal, and Albion turned on the flair as Fulham fans headed for the exit.
LuaLua smashed the side-netting when he should have hit the target, but it mattered not: Albion’s celebrations were already in full swing.
Glenn Houlihan at The Amex
Photo: Paul Hazlewood BHAFC