Aleksandar Mitrovic scored the vital winner for Fulham as they leapfrogged Cardiff into second in the Sky Bet Championship standings with a 2-1 win over Sunderland on Friday, ensuring the race for automatic promotion will go to the final day
Joel Asoro capped an energetic start for the Black Cats when he drove the opener home after 28 minutes, but Lucas Piazon slotted an equaliser on the stroke of half-time, moments after Ovie Ejaria had a penalty appeal turned down after a challenge from Tim Ream.
The hosts lost influential left-back Matt Targett to injury in the first half and it looked as though it would not be their evening, but Mitrovic powered home a header 14 minutes from time to seal the three points at Craven Cottage.
Fulham: Bettinelli (6), Fredericks (8), Odoi (6), Ream (6), Targett (5), Cairney (7), McDonald (7), Johansen (8), Piazon (7), Sessegnon (6), Mitrovic (7)
Subs: Kamara (7), Fonte (5), Kalas (n/a)
Sunderland: Steele (7), Jones (6), O’Shea (6), Kone (5), Wilson (5), McNair (6), Robson (6), Honeyman (5), Ejaria (6), Fletcher (5), Asoro (6)
Subs: Matthews (5), McManaman (n/a), Maja (n/a)
Man of the match: Ryan Fredericks
Slavisa Jokanovic's men move two points clear of the Bluebirds after the victory - one that makes it 23 games unbeaten for the Whites - while Sunderland remain rooted to the bottom of the table, having had their relegation confirmed last weekend.
As had been the case against Millwall last Friday, the Whites got off to a laboured start in front of their home fans and were made to look ordinary by a Sunderland side playing with significantly decreased pressure on them.
Both Ashley Fletcher and Asoro saw chances fly wide of the target in the first 20 minutes - as did Ryan Fredericks at the opposite end - but the opener fell to Chris Coleman's men when Asoro spun Targett and hit a low effort beyond the reach of Marcus Bettinelli.
Naturally, going behind sparked the Whites into action, and as half-time approached, through a slight stroke of fortune, they drew level.
Centre-back Ream clumsily brought down Liverpool loanee Ejaria, but referee Peter Bankes waved away appeals, allowing the hosts to break and Piazon to sidefoot home at the far post, after Jason Steele had pushed Fredericks' cross into his path.
Fulham boss Slavisa Jokanovic named the same starting 11 for the fourth successive game, while the Black Cats made three changes from the side that lost 2-1 to Burton last weekend, as Joel Asoro, Ethan Robson and Ovie Ejaria replaced Callum McManaman, Aiden McGeady and Lee Cattermole, who misses out with a knee injury. 16 year-old Bali Mumba was named on the bench.
Aboubakar Kamara replaced Targett in the first half and proved to be a constant danger on the right hand side in the second half as both sides bombarded one another with shots from range, but it was the visitors who perhaps created a better impression of themselves on the night.
That said, Fulham's ability to kill off games shone through in the end. They were far from their slick best, but earned their vital three points when Mitrovic rose highest to nod Stefan Johansen's dipping free-kick into the back of the net to claim all three points.
Man of the match - Ryan Fredericks
Fulham's full-backs tend to escape the media spotlight, with the stellar frontline of Sessegnon, Mitrovic et al taking the majority of the headlines in their unprecedented 23-game unbeaten run.
Alongside Matt Targett, Fredericks is perhaps one of the key figures in this Fulham and looked a threat on numerous occasions in the first half, despite Fulham's below-par display at the Cottage. The 25-year-old has attracted Premier League suitors in recent weeks and Slavisa Jokanovic will be hoping to tie him down with fresh terms with his contract due to expire this summer.
Slavisa Jokanovic: "It was a really important and strange game for us. We suffered so much during the game and we weren't comfortable in the first 45 minutes. Without being under any kind of stress, Sunderland played without any pressure and created many problems for us.
"He's [Mitrovic] been crucial. He's scored many goals - many winning goals - and today was really important for us. Cardiff are not under my control but I suspect we have taken the pressure from ourselves and we are going to be better for the next game."
Chris Coleman: "I thought we showed a lot of courage here tonight because it's not the physical side of it for us now, it's the psychological side. They are a good team, Fulham, and they are going to be there or thereabouts with a game to go. But I could ask for anything more from my players, they put a proper performance in and I don't think Fulham beat us tonight, I think it was decisions from the officials. There were huge calls that we didn't get - when you are already relegated some people think it doesn't matter to you, but I promise you that it does to us.
"When things are going wrong for you you tend to attract negativity unfortunately and those little things that should go for you don't. I can swallow that, but I can't swallow big things. The performance deserved something tonight.
"We've got to change a lot, there needs to be big changes. We need to get rid of the uncertainty - who is going to own the club and what the plan is. As long as we know that, we can draw a line under that and say, 'let's have a crack at this' because it's about bouncing back immediately. It's as simple as that."
Both sides are next in action on the final day of the season, Sunday, May 6. Fulham travel to St Andrew's to face Birmingham as they look to secure automatic promotion, while relegated Sunderland finish the campaign at home to champions Wolves. All Championship games get underway in conjunction at 12.30pm.