A timely double from Aleksandar Mitrovic handed Claudio Ranieri a dream start to life at Craven Cottage as Fulham sneaked past Southampton in a five-goal thriller this afternoon.
Ranieri promised a more pragmatic style of football after replacing Slavisa Jokanovic with the aim of keeping Fulham in the Premier League and, whilst his new side looked defensively secure, their first victory in three months owed plenty to the attacking philosophy that the Serbian imbued in SW6. Their equaliser, after Stuart Armstrong had punished some slack defending, came from a flowing seven pass move down the left flank and Fulham’s third arrived after Cyrus Christie had surged deep into Southampton territory.
In such an open contest, it was likely that both sides’ defensive frailties would be severely examined. Fulham were indebted to another outstanding display of goalkeeping from Sergio Rico, who produced a splendid double save to deny Armstrong and Manolo Gabbiadini in quick succession, and continued to repel wave after wave of Southampton attacks. He could do little about their opening goal, when both Tom Cairney and Jean-Michael Seri switched off, allowing Nathan Redmond to reach Matt Targett’s throw. The winger was the visitors’ most potent threat all afternoon and, although Maxime Le Marchand got a touch to his cross, Armstrong tucked away a clinical finish.
Too often this season Fulham heads had dropped decisively after they had gone behind. It was the youngest member of the side, Ryan Sessegnon, who provided a spark with a determined run from midfield and a powerful shot that flew just over the bar. The teenager was heavily involved in the equaliser just after the half hour. Southampton stood off Sessegnon and he found Cairney, whose clever pass released Le Marchand, who has often appeared a reluctant left back. This time the Frenchman galloped right to the byline and produced a splendid cross which Mitrovic stooped to guide into the far corner.
Young Sessegnon was far from finished. He produced a tremendous run down the left, bamboozling Cedric Soares in the process. and delivered the perfect low cross for Andre Schurrle to tap Fulham in front at the back post. The ten minute turn around represented the first time that the Whites had led since going 2-0 up at Brighton on September 1st – and we all know how that ended.
The home side were penned back in the early stages of the second half as Southampton pushed forward. Ranieri’s men almost grabbed a third on the break when Mitrovic’s powerful low drive was expertly saved by McCarthy and the Saints went straight up the other end to equalise. A poor defensive header from Sessegnon allowed Soares to flick the ball into the path of Armstrong just outside the box and the Scot drove a thumping finish beyond even Rico’s grasp.
Once again, the desire of the league’s bottom side could have been called into question. Instead, Fulham stepped up the intensity and fought for every ball. Their determination was typified by Schurrle chasing a lost cause to the corner flag and forcing a frenzied clearance from Wesley Hoedt, which fell kindly for Christie. The Republic of Ireland international then deftly beat his man and swung over a high cross that was smartly flicked on by Sessegnon for Mitrovic at the back post. The Serbian swiftly readjusted his feet and volleyed splendidly into the bottom corner, leaving McCarthy rooted to the spot.
There was still nearly half an hour for Fulham to hang on – and the finale was terrifying and gripping in equal measure. Southampton rallied and probably should have claimed a point. Rico made two further excellent reaction stops, beating out a volley from Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and then somehow foiled substitute Michael Obafemi, when he looked certain to score. In between, Obafemi somehow scooped a shot over the bar into the Putney End having beaten Le Marchand to a through ball. Five minutes of stoppage time seemed like a lifetime before Rico clung onto another Højbjerg effort and Michael Oliver finally called time on proceedings.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Rico; Christie, Le Marchand, Odoi, Mawson; Chambers, Seri (Johansen 68); Schurrle (Kamara 74), R. Sessegnon, Cairney; Mitrovic (Ayite 86). Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Ream, Bryan, Kebano.
BOOKED: Mawson, Johansen.
GOALS: Mitrovic (32, 63), Schurrle (42).
SOUTHAMPTON (4-2-3-1): McCarthy; Soares, Targett, Yoshida, Hoedt; Lemina, Højbjerg; Gabbiadini, Redmond, Armstrong (Obafemi 81); Austin (Elyounoussi 68). Subs (not used): Gunn, Vestergaard, Stephens, Davis, Ward-Prowse.
BOOKED: Hoedt, Højbjerg, Obafemi.
GOALS: Armstrong (18, 53).
REFEREE: Michael Oliver (Northumberland).