Steed Malbranque made amends for storming out of Craven Cottage after being left out of Fulham’s starting line up last week by playing the leading role as Chris Coleman’s side won an enthralling encounter at Blackburn Rovers this afternoon.
The French midfielder scored the equaliser after Lucas Neill had fired Mark Hughes’ men ahead and then created Brian McBride’s goal that put the visitors in front early in the second period and finished off the home side with a clinical third goal. Fulham were indebted to a fine save from the excellent Edwin van der Sar, who kept out Robbie Savage’s fine free-kick at 1-1, before Craig Short and Liam Rosenior were sent off within two minutes of each other.
Blackburn began brightly forcing Alain Goma to clear with Short, making his first start of the season, about to arrive behind the Frenchman at the far post. Fulham couldn’t live with the home side’s quick tempo and Neill scored a splendid opener after six minutes when he raced onto a through ball from Brett Emerton, beat two defenders, and finished impeccably past van der Sar.
Fulham tried to hit back immediately with Ryan Nelsen bravely blocking a long-range effort from Lee Clark and Malbranque, back in the side after making his peace with Coleman, became increasing influential in midfield. It was the skilful Frenchman who levelled the scores, finishing off an excellent move that saw Moritz Volz chip a ball down the right for Clark, whose cross was eagerly seized upon by Malbranque as he arrived in the area.
Rovers might have gone back in front before the interval. Jon Stead came agonisingly close to his first Ewood Park goal as his curler drifted just wide and Nelsen also went close with a header. Morten Gamst Pedersen somehow failed to head home a Savage free-kick before van der Sar did brilliantly to keep out a long-range drive from Aaron Mokoena.
Fulham were enlivened after the interval. Malbranque went close from distance and Zat Knight had a header ruled out before they deserved grabbed the lead through McBride. The American forward made the most of some space at a corner to chest down and strike low past Friedel, but Fulham’s lead was very nearly wiped out when Emerton struck the near post with a volley. The hosts should have equalised from the spot after Boa Morte hauled down Pedersen but van der Sar produced an outstanding spot to deny Savage.
Then came an explosion of wild challenges and confrontations. Luis Boa Morte’s crazy lunge at Nelsen sparked a brawl in the middle of the pitch. The Portuguese winger somehow stayed on the field, but Short was dismissed for pushing him to the ground as he remonstrated over the challenge. Savage then flew in on Boa Morte in response and also wasn’t sent off – but Rosenior saw red for pushing the Welsh midfielder over.
Stead spurned a glorious chance to equalise and Fulham made Rovers pay when Malbranque collected a pass from Boa Morte, worked a nice one-two with Clark, and stroked a lovely finish beyond Friedel to secure all three points.
BLACKBURN ROVERS (4-5-1): Friedel; Neill, Short, Nelsen, Johansson; Mokoena (Tugay 67), Emerton, Savage, Reid (Thompson 32), Pedersen (Derbyshire 82); Stead. Subs (not used): Enckelman, Taylor.
BOOKED: Neill, Stead.
SENT OFF: Short.
FULHAM (4-3-3): van der Sar; Volz, Rosenior, Knight, Goma; Pembridge, Clark, Malbranque; Radzinski, Boa Morte, McBride. Subs (not used): Crossley, Bocanegra, Rehman, Pearce, Timlin.
BOOKED: Boa Morte, Pembridge.
SENT OFF: Rosenior.
GOALS: Malbranque (20, 77), McBride (53).
REFEREE: Phil Dowd (Staffordshire).