NEWCASTLE: It was a tale of two Alexs at St. James’ Park as a pair of returning strikers made headlines for very different reasons.
Injury-plagued Alexander Isak proved Newcastle United’s Premier League match winner as he popped up off the bench to net a late winner and maintain the Magpies’ Champions League charge.
The Swede was thrown on with United chasing victory after suffering a near escape when Aleksandar Mitrovic, the former Magpies’ frontman, missed a bizarre penalty, having struck the ball twice when handed the chance to open the scoring from 12 yards.
The three points sees United leapfrog Manchester United back into the Premier League top three, and takes them within a point of second-placed Manchester City.
And while the points were welcomed everywhere from Tyneside to Riyadh, one moment in the game which could yet prove season-defining is the injury suffered by a teary Bruno Guimaraes, who turned his ankle.
A cagey opening half saw United frustrated largely, with Fulham showing just how they had climbed to the top seven of the Premier League following a mid-week defeat of city rivals, high-spending Chelsea.
Callum Wilson was the main threat to the goalless scoreline as he squandered a number of first half opportunities in an otherwise flat encounter in front of the TV cameras.
A header from a Kieran Trippier cross was nodded wide before Bernd Leno palmed a drive by the Newcastle No. 9 over the top after some smart work by man of the match Fabian Schar.
Wilson’s finish eluded him once again on the stroke of halftime as a smart turn was not flourished with his usual clinical strike, again allowing Germany’s Leno enough of a chance to deny.
The biggest thing about a rather less than eventful half was the limping figure of Guimaraes coming off the pitch in tears at the break — and then subsequently leaving St. James’ Park in a protective boot, after rolling his ankle in the opening 45, but attempting to play on and failing. Allan Saint-Maximin emerged as his replacement for the second half.
And while change was the order of the day after the break, so much stayed the same — including Wilson’s finishing.
Another chance fell the England frontman’s way on 50 minutes as a curling Trippier corner was nodded goalward but somehow ended up sailing wide, despite appearing destined to break the deadlock.
Newcastle hit the post from an unlikely source on the hour when Schar side-footed one off the foot of Leno’s goal and Miguel Almiron could not squirm home the rebound.
Then came the drama — and it was something rarely, if ever, seen on a football pitch.
Two stonewall-looking penalties were turned down by referee Robert Jones, the first of which Fulham boss Marco Silva believes should have seen a red card for Dan Burn.
Burn appeared to pull back Andreas Pereira in the area but nothing was given. Then in the same sequence of play Bobby De Cordova-Reid was felled by Trippier in the box. After a long VAR check, the second was given.
With just 20 minutes left on the clock, former United hero and Newcastle fan Mitrovic had the chance to net at his old stomping ground from the spot. But as he went to strike the ball, he slipped, striking the ball into his left boot — and despite the shot beating Nick Pope in the Magpies’ goal, Jones was left with no choice but to rule it out due to the double touch.
A ground that had appeared flat and a little uninspired to that point then erupted into life — and those on the pitch, helped by the introduction of Isak, delivered.
Saint-Maximin went close after an inspired run by Isak before the club record signing netted his third of the season — and first since September after a long injury layoff.
Fellow introduction Jacob Murphy won the ball as the Cottagers looked to counter, and Sean Longstaff’s curled cross found Wilson, who recycled the ball, with Isak on hand to net the easiest of headers.
That win was Newcastle’s 10th of a remarkable top flight campaign that shows no signs of slowing.
A footnote — this was also the first time that Newcastle have kept five successive clean sheets in their top division history.