Rafa Benitez received a salutary lesson about the harsh nature of life in the Championship as Fulham surprised the overwhelming favourites for automatic promotion by beating Newcastle on the opening night of the new season. The Spaniard’s much-heralded charges were outfought, out-thought and outhustled by an eager home side, who have already had to adjust to life at a lower level of football, having spent two inauspicious campaigns below the top flight.
Fulham shrugged off the loss of two prolific goalscorers in the shape of Moussa Dembele, whose penalty helped Celtic inch closer to the Champions’ League earlier this week, and the talismanic Ross McCormack, who moved to Aston Villa in a £12m deal, only days ago. Instead, the beanpole striker Matt Smith soared above new Newcastle captain Jamaal Lascalles to guide Tom Cairney’s inch-perfect corner beyond Tim Sels and secure a priceless victory for Slavisa Jokanovic. Just as impressive as Smith’s predatory instincts was the resolution of a Fulham defence that was barely recognisable from the back line that had shipped more than 80 goals as the Whites looked in danger of slipping into League One just months ago.
Jokanovic had shoehorned all eight of his summer additions into a side that still had a makeshift feel about it since both Marcus Bettinelli and teenage full-back Ryan Sessegnon were ruled out earlier in the day due to injury. Many of the plaudits will go to Sone Aluko, a seasoned campaigner at this level from his days with Hull City, who burst through the Newcastle defence with apparent ease but Jokanovic’s snaring of Tomas Kalas, a commanding presence at centre half, and the energetic full-back Denis Odoi also caught the eye during a disciplined and physical Fulham display that hinted at early promise.
Odoi might have made an early mistake when he conceded a free-kick in a dangerous area by upending Matt Ritchie, but Ayoze Perez’s free-kick was tame, and the Belgian defender’s rampaging runs forward, which featured an outrageous piece of skill to take him past Paul Dummett, made a far greater impression. Newcastle looked jittery, something that was encapsulated by the way Daryl Janmaat gifted possession to Aluko directly in front of the visitors goal, with only a last-ditch tackle from the retreating Grant Hanley preventing the Nigerian forward from opening the scoring.
Newcastle were denied a clear penalty when Ryan Tunnicliffe handled a cross from Ritchie – with referee Simon Hooper pointing for a corner. The officials also ignored Hanley’s rather agricultural tackle in the Fulham penalty area on Aluko and, to Benitez’s credit, he didn’t fixate on refereeing decisions following the final whistle. Of much more concern to the Newcastle manager would have been the way both Dwight Gayle and Ayoze Perez were easily nullified by a combination of Michael Madl, Kalas and the streetwise Kevin McDonald on his Fulham debut.
The goal that Newcastle conceded would only have compounded Benitez’s misery. Cairney’s corner drifted away from Matz Sels and Smith climbed majestically – shrugging off the attentions of Lascelles – to plant a perfect header into the far corner of the net. At a stroke, the former Leeds forward had justified his selection ahead of Cauley Woodrow and given Fulham the reward that their endeavour and high-octane display had merited on the balance of play in the first half.
The visitors upped their game in the second, having appeared far too timid initially. Vernon Anita’s low cross located Ritchie who brought a fine reaction save out of David Button, who was far too underworked on his Fulham debut for Benitez’s liking. Substitute Rolando Aarons miscued horribly in front of goal when another Anita cross flashed across the Fulham box and Kalas bravely blocked another Ritchie shot – but the home side fashioned chances too. Former Cardiff full-back Scott Malone flashed a drive agonisingly across the face of goal after a lovely bit of interplay with Lasse Vigen Christensen and Floyd Ayite was thwarted by Sels after tricking his way beyond the Magpies back-line.
Fulham’s football was fluent and streetwise. The accomplished defensive performance would have cheered Jokanovic who was so frustrated by his side’s generosity during his first few months in charge – but he will know to take nothing for granted in one of the continent’s most unpredictable leagues. For his part, Benitez hoped this would serve as ‘a wake up call’ and it’s clear Newcastle have a lot of hard work ahead.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Button; Odoi, Malone (Ream 85), Kalas, Madl; Tunnicliffe (Parker 69), McDonald; Cairney, Aluko, Ayite; Smith (Christensen 69). Subs (not used): Joronen, Stearman, Edun, Woodrow.
GOAL: Smith (45).
NEWCASTLE UNITED (4-2-3-1): Sels; Janmaat, Dummett, Hanley, Lascelles; Hayden (Shelvey 77), Colback (Aarons 61), Ritchie, Anita, Perez (Armstrong 70); Gayle. Subs (not used): Darlow, Mbemba, Jesus Gamez, Sterry.
BOOKED: Hanley, Dummett, Janmaat.
REFEREE: Simon Hooper (Wiltshire).