If the FA Cup is a distraction to the sides scrapping for their lives at the bottom of the Premier League, somebody forgot to tell Rene Meulensteen. Fulham floated past Norwich City tonight with the minimum of fuss and a straightforward dismissal of fellow strugglers Norwich City featured a timely goal for the off-colour Darren Bent and allowed the sense of despair that had engulfed Craven Cottage following Saturday’s shambolic defeat to Sunderland to dissipate somewhat.
Just as importantly, given some of the shoddy defending that has plagued their season, Fulham were led by their captain Brede Hangeland for the first time in three months. The Norwegian international’s return from a sciatic nerve problem couldn’t be more timely given a tricky trip to league leaders Arsenal on Saturday and another accomplished display from Dan Burn alongside him must have made Meulensten mull over whether to allow the 21 year-old to return to Birmingham City on loan for the remainder of the season. This clean sheet was Fulham’s first in five weeks – they have shipped 21 goals in that time – and, although it counts for little as they seek Premier League salvation, it will have encouraged some crucial confidence.
Maarten Stekelenburg, making his first appearance since December, offered an early reminder of his quality, saving sharply from Nathan Redmond at his near post within three minutes. The classy Robert Snodgrass did beat the Dutch international when the ball bounced around the eighteen-yard box, but his swerving strike came back off the crossbar. That encouraging opening was as good as it got for Norwich, who have now failed to beat Fulham in their last fifteen attempts. The home side swiftly assumed control of the midfield battle, with the tigerish Giorgis Karagounis putting forward a compelling case for his inclusion in the crucial league fixtures to come and the impish Steve Sidwell driving forward to great effect from central midfield.
Bent, who has not been without his critics during an underwhelming loan spell from Aston Villa, took his goal with the aplomb expected of a striker with his predatory instincts. He profited from the desire of Pajtim Kasami to reach the by-line, and a clever dummy from Ashkan Dejagah, to fire an instinctive shot through Mark Bunn from close range for his fourth goal of the season. Whilst it might not have been a commanding Fulham performance, they were in control for most of the first half and scored the vital second just before the break from a Norwich corner.
A quick Fulham counter-attack saw Alex Kacaniklic scamper onto Bent’s flick-on and cross for Dejagah to steer home his second goal for the club from six yards. Dejagah’s interplay with his former Wolfsburg colleague Sascha Riether down the right has been one of the few bright spots during a dismal twelve months for Fulham – which made Martin Jol’s decision not to play the pair together all the more baffling. Meulensteen would do well to restore that axis in the critical weeks to come.
Norwich began the second half with more purpose, following a half-time pep talk from Chris Hughton, and the introduction of Ricky van Wolfswinskel. They forced a couple of early corners, but created little in the way of clear-cut chances until Sebastian Bassong escaped his marker to reach a Snodgrass set-piece, but Stekelenburg claimed the header with little alarm. The visitors still struggled for the penetration that Fulham’s attacks promised a third goal for the home side in the 69th minute put the contest well and truly beyond the Canaries.
It came from courtesy of the width that Fulham had exploited to great effect throughout the evening. Javier Garrido had done well to clear a dangerous cross from Kacaniklic, but Sascha Riether sent over a superb centre that Steve Sidwell nodded firmly into the far corner after avoiding the attentions of David Fox at the far post. There was still time for Meulensteen to offer late opportunities to impress to some of Fulham’s impressive youngsters. Moussa Dembele replaced Bent and showed plenty of eagerness up front, snatching at his only chance as he sent a speculative effort wide from long range, whilst Swedish teenager Muamer Tankovic was also handed a debut and Lasse Vigen Christensen continued his calm ascent into first-team football from the first game at Carrow Road.
FULHAM (4-3-2-1): Stekelenburg; Riether, Richardson, Hangeland, Burn; Karagounis, Sidwell (Christensen 84), Kasami; Dejagah, Kacaniklic (Tankovic 87); Bent (Dembele 79). Subs (not used): Stockdale, Hughes, Dempsey, Rodallega.
GOALS: Bent (16), Dejagah (41), Sidwell (69).
NORWICH CITY (4-5-1): Bunn; Whittaker, Gariddo, Martin, Bassong; Johnson, Fox, Snodgrass; Redmond (van Wolfswinkel 45), Josh Murphy; Elmander (Becchio 68). Subs (not used): Ruddy, R. Bennett, Fer, Hoolahan, Jacob Murphy.
REFEREE: Lee Mason (Lancashire).