‘Believe’ was the plaintive cry emblazoned on the clappers distributed around Craven Cottage before kick-off. But believing Fulham can survive surely takes an extraordinary leap of faith after a slick second-half Southampton display saw Rene Meulensteen’s men slip to the very foot of the Premier League table. Three superbly taken goals abruptly punctured the optimism that had been emanating from Motspur Park following Fulham’s hectic transfer deadline day appeared to have breathed new life into their hopes of avoiding relegation.
For a while, there was plenty of positivity on display on the pitch too. The lively Lewis Holtby scampered dangerously around the Southampton penalty area and had the home side not been defied by three smart stops from Artur Boruc, the match might have taken a decidedly different turn. The Polish goalkeeper, a virtual spectator in the second half by contrast, first stretched to claw out a Brede Hangeland header that looked as though it had beaten him and then made two splendid saves in succession from Darren Bent. That was as good as it got for Meulensteen’s men,
Southampton, whose chances were sporadic despite their dominance of possession, were stifled by the presence of William Kvist, a deadline-day loan signing from VfB Stuttgart, who patrolled diligently in front of the back four. Burn and Hangeland largely nullified the aerial threat of the returning Ricky Lambert, with the visitors’ best chance falling to Jay Rodriguez, who failed to find the target with a free header from Lambert’s right-wing cross. Mauricio Pochettini replaced the off-colour Victor Wanyama with Jack Cork, son of former Fulham assistant manager Alan, for the second period and the pendulum swung dramatically Southampton’s way.
Adam Lallana, a peripheral figure for much of the first half, gradually became increasingly influential in front of the watching Roy Hodgson. Only a sharp sprawling save from Maarten Stekelenburg prevented the England international from breaking the deadlock with a low shot from a central position, twenty yards out. Fulham’s reprieve was merely temporary. Cork snaffled up possession on the half way line and fed Morgan Schneiderlen before Lambert drove dangerously on a retreating back four and slipped in Lallana, who ran in goal and drove a clinical finish across Stekelenburg to give Southampton the lead.
Pochettini’s side supplied the killer blow just six minutes with a wonderfully worked team goal. Substitute Nathaniel Clyne sauntered forward from right back, swapping passes with former Fulham midfielder Steven Davies, and squared sumptuously for Lambert to double the lead from ten yards out. If there was any doubt about the outcome, it was extinguished fifteen minutes from time when Lambert floated a sublime ball over the Fulham defence for Rodriguez. The former Burnley forward attacked Hangeland, cut inside and curled a majestic finish into the far corner from fifteen yards. Celebrating a first league win at Craven Cottage since 1947, Southampton’s fans sung deliriously about their boys heading for Brazil – and, on this evidence, Roy Hodgson’s World Cup squad could well comprise a quartet from the south coast.
Fulham’s worries are far more prosaic. Stung by the nature of their collapse, Meulensteen frankly admitted this was the biggest challenge of his own career – and of Fulham’s recent history. With a goal difference of -31 and a three point gap to seventeenth place, any form of escapology might eclipse Hodgson’s own miraculous recovery back in 2008. Fifty three goals conceded suggest that, for all the optimism over the arrival of Kostas Mitroglou, Fulham’s problems are at the other end of the field. Meulensteen might find things get worse still: Fulham’s next three league fixtures are against Manchester United, Liverpool and Manchester City.
FULHAM (4-3-2-1): Stekelenburg; Riether, Richardson, Hangeland, Burn; Kvist (Tankovic 83), Sidwell, Parker (Kasami 74); Holtby, Duff (Dempsey 65); Bent. Subs (not used): Stockdale, Passley, Kacaniklic, Rodallega.
SOUTHAMPTON (4-2-3-1): Boruc; Chambers (Clyne 58), Shaw, Yoshida, Fonte; Wanyama (Cork 45), Schneiderlin; Rodriguez (Gallagher 87), Lallana, Davis; Lambert. Subs (not used): Davis, Hooiveld, Ward-Prowse, Do Prado.
BOOKED: Wanyama, Schneiderlin.
GOALS: Lallana (64), Lambert (70), Rodriguez (75).
REFEREE: Mike Jones (Chester).