Those casting casual glance over the Premier League table prior to today’s fixture might have thought Fulham’s £100m summer spending misplaced after they began their return to the top flight with two defeats. On a soggy afternoon at Craven Cottage, the Whites painted a spirited riposte by putting Burnley to the sword with some sparkling football inspired by the artistry of Jean-Michael Seri and an exhibition of classical centre forward play from Aleksandar Mitrovic.
Seri, who could have been wearing the fabled colours of Barcelona but for a late change of heart from the Catalan club last summer, has purred quietly in the season’s opening fortnight at the heart of a reshaped Fulham midfield. Once again he orchestrated much of Fulham’s most incisive football from the midfield, but he needed little more than three minutes to leave his mark on this contest. There appeared little danger when the Ivorian received possession from Luciano Vietto thirty yards from goal, left of centre, but in the blink of an eye Seri glided away from Jeff Hendrick and unleashed an unstoppable strike into Joe Hart’s top corner. Not a bad way to score your first goal in English football.
Fulham’s commitment to total football under Slavisa Jokanovic has been absolute – and was the reason why they earned promotion from the Championship last season. Occasionally, it will prove the Whites’ biggest weakness: as it did here when Maxime Le Marchand carelessly gifted possession to Burnley on the halfway line five minutes later. The pace of Aaron Lennon unsettled the remnants of the home defence and, once the former England winger had beautifully teed up Hendrick, the equaliser arrived at the second attempt after the recalled Marcus Bettinelli had repelled his initial effort.
Impressively, that setback only served to galvanise a Fulham side who had shown positive signs in their first two Premier League outings, but not managed to string together a complete performance. They continued to probe patiently, enjoying almost complete dominance of the ball, and with full backs Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Joe Bryan haring forward down both flanks. Jokanovic had made five changes in response to last weekend’s defeat by Tottenham at Wembley – even benching wonderkid Ryan Sessegnon, rendering Gareth Southgate’s rumoured scouting mission pretty pointless, and underlining the need for his players to adjust to the unforgiving nature of the top flight.
The home side looked enlivened by the intelligence of Luciano Vietto on the left and Andre Schurrle’s eagerness on the opposite flank. The German winger carried the ball forward with purpose and peppered Hart’s goal with shots from distance throughout, whilst Vietto floated into pockets of space behind Mitrovic. The Serbian centre forward set about banishing any doubts about his suitability at this level – adding to his Wembley equaliser with two goals in two minutes that changed the complexion of this contest.
Both came in the air and were intricately worked. The first had been constructed at Motspur Park with Tom Cairney receiving a short corner and chipping an inviting ball to the back post, where Mitrovic arrived to head past a hesitant Hart from barely three yards out. Mitrovic led Ben Mee and James Tarkowski a merry dance all afternoon, with the Burnley centre backs getting their wires horribly crossed as Vietto floated an inviting cross between them for the former Newcastle forward to bury a routine header. Hart’s anguish at the ease of it all was understandable – one of his defenders pushed up to play offside whilst the other stayed deeper, affording Mitrovic another simple finish.
The visitors did find a reply prior to half-time, although Tarkowski’s bundled finish from a corner probably shouldn’t have stood given that the former Brentford centre back looked offside when Mee headed the ball back towards goal. Sean Dyche’s charges looked exhausted by the after-effects of an demorilising defeat at the hands of Olympiakos in midweek – and couldn’t rouse themselves to complete the comeback in the second half. Hendrick came closest, driving into the Putney End after clever approach play from Chris Wood, but Fulham’s onslaught was unrelenting.
The lively Schurrle almost created a goal out of nothing, cutting in from the right to rattle Hart’s crossbar with an audacious curler from just outside the box. Then, Cairney – who later limped off after being clattered by Tarkowski – caressed a ball out to the rampaging Fosu-Mensah and the Manchester United loanee’s measured cross eluded the diving efforts of both Schurrle and Mitrovic to divert the ball home from inside the six-yard box. Just as the Cottage prepared itself for another agnosingly finale, Mitrovic wriggled free on the edge of the box and measured a drive for the far corner. Hart somehow tripped the strike onto the base of the far post, but proved powerless to prevent Schurrle from rolling in the rebound with his eleventh attempt of the match.
The two-goal cushioned probably offered a better reflection of an absorbing contest and an elusive first Premier League win should do wonders for Fulham’s confidence. Jokanovic now has a plethora of options to perm his first eleven form and, on this evidence, when they click, the Whites could prove a formidable proposition.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Fosu-Mensah, Bryan (Chambers 72), Odoi, Le Marchand; McDonald, Seri, Cairney (Anguissa 78); Schurrle (R. Sessegnon 88), Vietto, Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Fabri, Christie, Johansen, Kamara.
BOOKED: Schurrle, Bettinelli.
GOALS: Seri (4), Mitrovic (36, 38), Schurrle (83).
BURNLEY (4-2-3-1): Hart; Lowton, Ward (Barnes 66), Mee, Tarkowski; Cork, Westwood; Lennon, Gudmundsson (Taylor 23), Hendrick; Wood (Vokes 66). Subs (not used): Heaton, Gibson, Bardsley, Long.
GOALS: Hendrick (10), Tarkowski (41).
REFEREE: David Coote (Nottinghamshire).