In a strangely subdued game that only came to life as Fulham sought to rescue something in a frenetic final fifteen minutes, Southampton’s superior passing and finishing ultimately condemned Slavisa Jokanovic’s side to a disappointing FA Cup third round exit at the hands of Premier League opposition. They were defeated by James Ward-Prowse’s first goal of the season, a smart low finish beyond David Button from ten yards out, after a slick passing move saw the ball end up – somewhat fortuitously land at the gifted midfielder’s feet having deflected towards him off Kevin McDonald.
The Saints’ long-awaited away win – they had been without one since the end of November – was simultaneously comfortable and slender. At times, the crispness of their passing and the way in which they maneuvered around the tight spaces of the Craven Cottage pitch made this game appear more of a training exercise. The victory was achieved without too much exertion but such was the top flight side’s dominance, the hosts barely made an impression until it was almost too left. The outbreak of jeering that greeted Pierre Emile Hojbjerg’s early departure, when he was substituted by Mauricio Pellegrino, served as a stark reminder that winning sometimes isn’t enough for the modern football fan.
Jokanovic himself had made clear that, despite speaking about the romance of the Cup in a pre-match press conference that had made headlines for other reasons, the world’s oldest cup competition was not his priority this season. The Serbian made five changes to the side that had roared back after half-time against Ipswich on Tuesday and suddenly made bridging the gap to the Championship play-off positions appear achievable and rested the captain Tom Cairney. None of the non-regular starters made a particular impression, with poor Rui Fonte appearing anonymous at the top of a toothless Fulham attack.
The hosts huffed and puffed but had little to unduly worry Pellegrino’s charges. It was Southampton who made the early running and, they might have been in front after just ten minutes, when Shane Long fired a ferocious drive past Button but saw his second goal in as many games chalked off by what turned out to be an erroneous offside flag. Twice Tim Ream produced timely challenges inside the penalty area to disrupt a promising Saints attack and only the ridiculously talented Ryan Sessegnon, whose surges down the left created a couple of early openings for Fonte and the returning Lucas Piazon, represented a credible attacking threat for Fulham.
Seconds after Jack Stephens had replled another Sessegnon cross, the Saints had the ball in the net at the other end. This time it counted. Former Fulham midfielder Steven Davis, who has excelled for club and country since an ill-fated period at Craven Cottage came to an end in 2009, was allowed far too much space to carry a forward ball from Maya Yoshida and a combination of Sofiane Boufal, Long and the unfortunate McDonald carried the ball to Ward-Prowse, who made no mistake with his measured finish.
Southampton should have made sure of their progress to round four well before Fulham threatened a late rally. Button produced a fine reaction save to push away a Hojbjerg’s close-range finish and Stephens was unlucky to see his powerful header from a corner come down off the underside of the crossbar and bounce away from goal, but the longer the deficit remained at a single goal, the greater Fulham’s belief grew. Denis Odoi couldn’t reprise his cool finish against Preston North End when Alex McCarthy fumbled a routine cross in remarkably similar circumstances, leaning back and blazing over the bar, whilst Piazon was guilty of wasting an even more presentable chance at the back post when unmarked.
Fulham finished the game on the front foot with Johansen, who had earlier shot straight at McCarthy following a nice one-two with Fonte, making the sort of late runs into the box that had delivered goals during the second half of last season. Today, the best the Norwegian midfielder could muster was a late chance at the back post for Ollie Norwood, whose header was as wide of the mark as much of his passing in a below-par display. This proved one of those frustrating afternoons where the gulf between the Championship and the top flight appeared slight at times and ever so vast at others.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Button; Fredericks, Odoi, Kalas (Ojo 66), Ream; McDonald (Kebano 56), Norwood, Johansen; Piazon, R. Sessegnon Fonte (Kamara 76). Subs (not used): Norman, Djalo, S. Sessegnon, de la Torre.
SOUTHAMPTON (4-2-3-1): McCarthy; Bednarek, Bertrand, Stephens, Yoshida; Romeu, Højbjerg (Lemina 80); Ward-Prowse, Davis, Boufal (Redmond 70); Long (Gabbiadini 86). Subs (not used): Forster, Targett, Tadic, Sims.
GOAL: Ward-Prowse (29).
REFEREE: Michael Oliver (Northumberland).