Louis Saha offered yet another reminder of why Manchester United covet his services with a brilliant brace that saw off Southampton and breathed new life into Fulham’s European challenge.
Chris Coleman has insisted the French striker will be leaving ‘over my dead body’ following what the club described as ‘unwelcome and unsolicited’ approaches from a number of top clubs for Saha’s services. He underlined his irresistible form by taking his tally to eleven league goals for the season as the Saints were comprehensively outplayed at Loftus Road this afternoon. This was only Fulham’s fourth victory in eleven games and Saha’s telepathic understanding with compatriot Steed Malbranque was key in getting the Whites back on track after defeats at the hands of Leeds and Chelsea.
There was no lack of confidence about the home side, who forced a succession of early corners, nullifying Southampton’s hopes of making a fast start themselves. Saha had been kept quiet in the early stages but he gave Fulham the lead on nineteen minutes after Malbranque worked a clever one-two with Lee Clark and put the rapid forward in the clear. His finish was unerring into the bottom corner and Saha would have been disappointed not to doubled his tally shortly afterwards, snatching at a cross from Luis Boa Morte.
Fulham were buzzing now and Antti Niemi had to be alert to deal with a long-range effort from Clark after Saha had found the midfielder play with some classic centre-forward hold up play. Malbranque dragged a shot wide after another flowing move as the home side finished the first period on top and they reappeared in the same vein after the break, with Saha shooting fractionally wide from just outside the box and then fizzing a low cross right across the face of goal.
Gordon Strachan then sent on Kevin Phillips for Brett Ormerod in a bid to perk up the Saints attack, but the visitors made little impression. Instead, they were indebted to Niemi for keeping them in the contest. The Finnish goalkeeper produced an excellent save to deny Saha when he looked certain to score after cushioning Malbranque’s outstanding 30-yard ball perfectly on his chest – and Junichi Inamoto blazed wastefully over from the rebound.
Southampton eventually drew a save from Edwin van der Sar but Phillips’ speculative shot from 25 yards was tame in truth and the contest was settled when Dermot Gallagher awarded a penalty after Boa Morte was upended by Chris Marsden. Saha went for power from the spot and his effort flew into the net – bouncing through the unfortunate Niemi’s legs. Fulham could have had more goals in the closing stages, with Malbranque inexplicably missing the target from three yards after Zat Knight had headed a corner towards goal.
FULHAM (4-3-3): van der Sar; Volz, Bonnissel (Harley 23), Knight, Goma; Djetou, Clark, Inamoto; Malbranque, Boa Morte, Saha. Subs (not used): Crossley, Melville, Sava, Hayles.
GOALS: Saha (19, pen 63).
SOUTHAMPTON (4-4-2): Niemi; Dodd, Lundekvam, M. Svensson, Higginbotham; Marsden, McCann (Delgado 73), Prutton, Telfer; Beattie, Ormerod (Phillips 51). Subs (not used): Blayney, A. Svensson, Baird.
BOOKED: M. Svensson, Prutton.
REFEREE: Dermot Gallagher (Oxfordshire).