Louis Saha served another reminder of his importance to Fulham as his timely double rescued Chris Coleman’s side from FA Cup humiliation at the hands of Cheltenham Town.
The French striker is at the centre of a tug of war between his current employers and Manchester United, who have made no secret of their desire to sign the in-form forward. He scored twice to ensure Fulham sneaked into round four but the Premiership side were lucky to see off their lower league opponents, relying on an injury-time header to ensure their progress.
Coleman named a strong side – conscious of the fact that the world’s oldest club competition represents Fulham’s only realistic chance of silverware – handed a debut to Celtic winger Bobby Petta, who arrived on loan earlier this week, but the Whites stunned by a spectacular opener from Grant McCann. The Cheltenham midfielder was afforded plenty of time and space outside the box in the fifth minute and made Fulham pay with a fantastic strike that flew beyond Edwin van der Sar into the far corner.
Fulham did level matters reasonably swiftly as Sylvain Legwinski swept a lovely ball in for Saha, who held off the attentions of John Brough and Michael Duff, and lifted a lovely finish over the advancing Shane Higgs. The home side went on to dominate the contest but struggled to put clear water between themselves and their plucky opponents, largely down to some heroic Cheltenham defending. Saha headed a Steed Malbranque over the bar from a good position and Cheltenham still posed a threat on the break with van der Sar making a superb stop to prevent Duff from putting the visitors back in front.
For much of the second period, Cheltenham looked largely comfortable in dealing with Fulham’s attacks. The Division Three side restricted Saha to long range efforts, whilst Zat Knight headed a great chance from Petta’s corner wide. Substitute Barry Hayles injected more power into the home side’s attack and he was inches away from having an instant impact when he almost connected with a clever Malbranque through ball. Petta come close to a debut goal when he shot agonisingly across the face of goal, but it looked like Fulham would have to travel to Whaddon Road for a replay until Saha pounced from Petta’s deep corner with a downward header at the far post.
Loftus Road stood in sporting acknowledgement of Cheltenham’s spirited efforts long after the final whistle – but Saha’s proven finishing ability made the difference. How long Fulham can hold onto their prize asset remains to be seen.
FULHAM (4-3-3): van der Sar; Djetou, Green, Goma (Melville 45), Knight; Davis, Legwinski, Inamoto (Hayles 58); Malbranque, Petta, Saha. Subs (not used): Crossley, Pratley, Sava.
GOALS: Saha (13, 90).
CHELTENHAM TOWN (4-4-2): Cheltenham: Higgs, Wilson, M. Duff, Brough, Victory, Devaney, Finnigan, Forsyth, McCann, Spencer (Odejayi 84), Taylor. Subs (not used): Book, Yates, Bird, S. Duff.
BOOKED: Devaney, Forsyth.
GOAL: McCann (5).
REFEREE: Peter Walton (Northamptonshire).