Fulham withstood a gutsy fightback from Cardiff to reach the Championship play-off final despite losing the second leg of their semi-final.
Cardiff won 2-1 on the night at Craven Cottage courtesy of goals from Curtis Nelson and Lee Tomlin, as Neeskens Kebano levelled for Fulham moments after Nelson’s headed opener.
But despite a nervy second half following Tomlin’s volley, the Cottagers’ 2-0 first-leg lead helped them progress 3-2 on aggregate to a Wembley final against Brentford.
It keeps Fulham’s chances of an immediate return to the Premier League alive while Cardiff’s attempts to secure promotion back at the first time of asking are over.
Needing to create history by being the first team to overturn a two-goal first-leg deficit in a second tier play-off semi-final, Cardiff thought they had made the ideal start when centre-back Nelson rose at the back post to head in Joe Ralls’ corner.
But just 24 seconds later, Fulham were level and back to being two goals clear on aggregate.
Straight from the restart, Kebano swept in right-footed ahead of Cardiff right-back Leandro Bacuna to meet Bobby Decordova-Reid’s low cross from 12 yards out.
Kebano, who had also netted a brilliant free-kick in injury time of the first leg to put Fulham seemingly in command of the tie, had appeared to dash Cardiff’s chances of a spirited comeback.
Fulham continued to test Alex Smithies in the Cardiff goal before half-time, but good saves from Cyrus Christie and Anthony Knockaert efforts kept the scoreline level on the night.
With the visitors’ opening attack of the second half, a Will Vaulks long throw caused problems in the Fulham penalty box and they were unable to deny substitutes Nathaniel Mendez-Laing and Tomlin time and space to force Neil Harris’ side back ahead.
Mendez-Laing’s header was parried away by Marek Rodak but centre-back Michael Hector was unable to force it clear, allowing Tomlin to pounce with a volley just inside the post.
But despite Fulham jitters, Cardiff were unable to capitalise. Smithies again having to make impressive saves to twice deny substitute Aboubakar Kamara, the second a finger tip deflection on to the base of the post, to stop Fulham from going out of sight.
At the other end, Rodak still had to be alert to maintain the home side’s advantage when he first blocked a close-range effort from Robert Glatzel and then leapt back to his feet to tip over Vaulks’ long-range drive.
Cardiff kept pushing right to the end for the third goal that would have forced extra time and Glatzel came within inches of doing so deep into stoppage time when he volleyed narrowly over the crossbar from Callum Paterson’s nod-down.
It was not to be for the visitors, who sunk to their knees at full-time while Fulham breathed a sigh of relief.