It’s starting to feel as though things are falling into place for Mark Hughes. Given three games to save his job after a Boxing Day drubbing by West Ham, the Welshman’s chances of surviving his first season at Craven Cottage seemed slim as Fulham were sucked into a relegation dogfight. Now, after his charges had hit three for the fourth time in seven matches, Fulham are looking upwards from ninth place, with two points seperating them from seventh-placed Everton, and Hughes has every reason to be content with his work.
The mid-season stumble occured when Hughes was missing a host of strikers, including the talismanic Bobby Zamora, who delivered a virtuoso performance that might make Fabio Capello sit up and take notice. Though he didn’t manage to continue his comeback from a horrific leg break with a goal, Zamora made two of Fulham’s three goals and undoubtedly left Steve Bruce cursing his own like of firepower. Stephane Sessegnon and Steed Malbranque toiled manfully as makeshift strikers but both missed good chances to give the home side the lead and when skipper Lee Cattermole shot straight at Mark Schwarzer you got the feeling it wasn’t going to be Sunderland’s day.
Fulham’s first goal arrived somewhat against the run of play, though for all Sunderland’s patient probing they struggled to create clear-cut chances. Malbranque buzzed around in front of a Fulham back four that saw Philippe Senderos making his first start in place of the injured Brede Hangeland, but when the Swiss centre back drove his clearance against the Frenchman, Malbranque shot wastefully wide. The visitors went straight up the other end and made their former playmaker pay. Eidur Gudjohnsen and Zamora linked up nicely on the edge of the box, before Gael Kakuta scuttled onto Zamora’s through pass and tricked his way past three defenders, keeping his balance to poke his first goal in English football beyond Simon Mignolet.
Cattermole spurned a glorious chance to level the contest just before the break. The Sunderland skipper swapped passes with the busy Sessegnon but, as the Fulham defence opened in front of him, stabbed weakly at Mark Schwarzer. After the break, a similarly impressive move sure Sessegnon play in Malbranque, only for Schwarzer to gather a tame shot. By contrast, Fulham were patient and methodical, before being clinical in the opposition penalty area.
Proof arrived just after the hour mark. Steve Sidwell slipped a forward ball to Zamora and continued his run forward. Zamora’s return pass encouraged Sidwell to drive into the box and his cut-back was rifled home by a sliding Simon Davies, who had cut inside from the left flank. It was a slick counter-attacking goal of some quality and accurately illustrated the difference between the sides.
A desperate Steve Bruce through Nedum Onouha forward as a makeshift targetman but any hope Sunderland had of a late fightback evaporated when Zamora ploughed down the right and lifted a ball into the box for Davies to bundle home from five yards. His scrappy second, which owed plenty to confusion between Mignolet and substitute Anton Ferdinand, was the antitode to the classy goal that preceeded it, but Fulham’s small travelling band of followers didn’t care. An away win’s rare enough, but back-to-back victories are even more uncommon – coupled with Wednesday’s win over Bolton this were Fulham’s first successive wins since last February.
SUNDERLAND (4-4-2): Mignolet; Bardsley, Elmohammdy, Turner, Onouha; Cattermole, Muntari (A. Ferdinand 66), Henderson (Lynch 76), Colback; Sessegnon, Malbranque (Zenden 75). Subs (not used): Carson, Mensah, Adams, Riveros.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Baird, Salcido, Senderos, Hughes; Murphy (Etuhu 79), Sidwell, Davies, Kakuta (Greening 62); Zamora (A. Johnson 79), Gudjohnsen. Subs (not used): Stockdale, Kelly, Dembele, Hoesen.
GOALS: Kakuta (33), Davies (61, 73).
REFEREE: Martin Atkinson (West Yorkshire).