WITH cranes towering in the background, one side of Fulham’s Craven Cottage home is currently a building site as the club erects a towering new glass stand that will back directly onto the River Thames. As last night’s 1-0 defeat at the home of the Cottagers proved, Jonathan Woodgate’s rebuilding job at Middlesbrough also remains a work in progress.

A first league defeat in the space of six matches is hardly a disgrace, especially when it came against a side who continue to harbour realistic ambitions of an immediate return to the Premier League following last season’s relegation. Boro improved markedly over the festive period, with Woodgate continuing to integrate a host of young faces into his starting line-up, and the positivity engendered over the last few weeks should not disappear in the wake of a one-goal defeat.

With youth comes an inevitable degree of inconsistency though, and this was a night when the Teessiders’ limitations were exposed, along with the folly of any over-excited talk about the play-offs. Having conceded a sixth-minute opener to Anthony Knockaert, Boro could easily have been embarrassed as they were unable to live with the pace and creativity of Fulham’s attacking in the opening half-hour.

The hosts carved out three golden opportunities to add to Knockaert’s goal, none of which were taken, enabling their opponents to finally gain a foothold in the game.

To Boro’s credit, they successfully regrouped after their shaky opening, displaying a doggedness that would almost certainly not have been evident two or three months ago. Woodgate can take that as a positive, even if his players were unable to seriously threaten an equaliser.

Hayden Coulson’s first-half cross hit the crossbar, and a recalled Rudy Gestede went close with a couple of headed half-chances. That was really that as Boro failed to score for the first time since their thrashing at Leeds though, with the lack of a cutting edge remaining an issue despite Ashley Fletcher and Lukas Nmecha joining Gestede for the final ten minutes. Britt Assombalonga has not been too badly missed during his lengthy injury lay-off, but this was a night when Boro could have done with their leading scorer.

As it was, they slumped to what was ultimately a deserved defeat without him. Perhaps a third game in six days was simply asking too much of Woodgate’s side.

The Boro boss made six changes in an attempt to freshen things up from Tuesday’s FA Cup replay defeat at Spurs, but his side looked jaded and lethargic from the off. As a result, Fulham were able to dominate from the first minute.

The hosts might have been missing the injured Aleksandar Mitrovic, but in Knockaert, they still boasted an attacker who had looked destined for great things in the Premier League at an earlier stage of his career.

Knockaert, whose summer loan move from Brighton was one of the most eye-catching pieces of close-season transfer business in the Championship, troubled the Boro defence all night. Coulson was unable to live with him on the left of the visitors’ back five, and he looked like scoring every time he cut infield to try to make the most of his left foot.

Knockaert threatened in the third minute, firing over after breaking infield from the right, and it was no surprise at all to see him complete the move that resulted in Fulham opening the scoring just three minutes later.

Djed Spence failed to close down Joe Bryan, enabling the full-back to deliver a low cross into the area, and Knockaert reacted quicker than Boro’s three centre-halves as he slid in to prod home from inside the six-yard box.

Boro’s defending was lamentable, but proved in keeping with the rest of an opening half-hour that saw Fulham carve their opponents apart at will. With the impressive Tom Cairney pulling the strings at the heart of midfield, and both Ivan Cavaleiro and Josh Onomah breaking forward to support central striker Bobby Decordova-Reid whenever possible, Scott Parker’s side could easily have scored three or four goals before Boro were able to rouse themselves to offer any sort of resistance.

Onomah’s side-footed shot was saved by Aynsley Pears after a pull-back from Knockaert. Decordova-Reid curled over after a one-two with Cavaleiro left him one-on-one with the Boro goalkeeper. Onomah failed to find the target with a header when he was left completely unmarked on the edge of the six-yard box after Knockaert swung in a corner from the right.

The extent of Fulham’s dominance was frightening, but more by luck than anything to do with their own efforts, Boro somehow remained in the game. As a result, they were able to ease themselves into something approaching a contest in the closing stages of the first half.

Gestede, surprisingly preferred to the in-form Fletcher, headed over from a corner as the Teessiders finally mustered a threat in the final third, and remarkably, the visitors came within an inch or two of levelling the scores on the half-hour mark.

Coulson was trying to deliver a cross from the left, but the ball took a huge deflection off Denis Odoi and cannoned off the crossbar after looping over a helpless Marek Rodak. It would have been a fortuitous and wholly undeserved equaliser, but nevertheless served to underline the precariousness of Fulham’s advantage despite their dominance.

The hosts enjoyed 71 per cent possession before the interval, but their superiority was markedly less pronounced for much of the second half, with Boro’s players seeing much more of the ball.

They still weren’t able to do an awful lot with it, with most of their attacks breaking down before they were able to deliver a ball into the area, but Marcus Tavernier made some dangerous bursts before he was surprisingly replaced on the hour mark and Patrick Roberts once again showed flashes to suggest he could be an influential figure following his move from Manchester City.

Gestede headed wide when under pressure from a corner, and Boro had a reasonable penalty shout turned down as the ball ricocheted onto Onomah’s arm, but the visitors remained unable to seriously test Rodak in the Fulham goal.

The home side’s second-half attacking was much more sporadic than their first, but they thought they had the game put to bed with 17 minutes left.

Denis Odoi glanced home Cavaleiro’s free-kick, sparking an acrobatic celebration in front of the Fulham fans, but the defender’s back-flips proved in vain as his effort was ruled out for offside. Replays suggested it was an extremely close call, but the hosts saw things out regardless.