As a perfectionist, Jean Tigana will probably find plenty with his competitive fixture in charge of Fulham. His side, dominant in possession and threatening from the outset, took more than an hour to break down an organised and determined Crewe Alexandra outfit in the summer sunshine at Craven Cottage but eventually eased to victory. Mohamed Al-Fayed turned to the French legend after taking soundings from key figures across the continent and the sense that Tigana has the x-factor to accelerate the Cottagers’ progress to the Premiership can only increase after his introduction of Barry Hayles quickly the complexion of this contest.
Hayles has had to prove the doubters wrong almost every season in SW6 and began this fixture on the bench as Tigana preferred to pair his summer signings Louis Saha and Luis Boa Morte up top. That partnership looked promising but was running on empty by the time Hayles replaced the on-loan Southampton forward on the hour. Hayles, a regular scorer in the First Division under the uninspiring Paul Bracewell last season, took just four minutes to fire the hosts ahead – converting a Lee Clark cross after a raking pass from Bjarne Goldbaek had unlocked the Crewe rearguard.
Fulham looked far more ferocious in the final third with the cushion of a lead after that. John Collins, showing all the class that saw him light up Premiership midfields until May, played a delightful ball over a horribly square visting defence, who were probably regretting pushing up when facing Saha’s pace. The French forward, a £2.1m capture from Metz, slotted a superb finish into an the empty net after he had beaten Jason Kearton to the loose ball. It was a deserved debut goal for the former Newcastle striker, who could have scored twice in the opening ten minutes. The Clarefontaine graduate tested the Crewe goalkeeper’s agility with a sixth-minute header and sent a rasping drive fractionally wide at the end of Fulham’s very next attack.
Saha and Boa Morte kept the Crewe defence on their toes but American winger Eddie Lewis brought a brilliant save out of Kearton when the goalkeeper tipped over a free-kick at full stretch before the break. Dario Gradi’s side struggled to see too much of the ball with Collins and Clark dictating play from central midfield, but Rodney Jack will probably feel he should have done better than blaze a half volley over the bar with a minute to go until the break. That was Crewe’s clearest opening until they were 2-0 down – and could easily have made the home crowd’s afternoon decidedly more uncomfortable.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Taylor; Finnan, Brevett, Melville, Coleman; John Collins, Clark (Fernandes 83), Goldbaek, Lewis; Saha (Betsy 76), Boa Morte (Hayles 59). Subs (not used): Hahnemann, W. Collins.
GOALS: Hayles (64), Saha (73).
CREWE ALEXANDRA (4-4-2): Kearton; Wright, Smith, Macauley, Sodje; Lunt, Sorvel, Little (Tait 35), Street (Hulse 72); Rivers (James Collins 82), Jack. Subs (not used): Bankole, Foster.
REFEREE: Rob Styles (Waterlooville).