A tactical tweak from Claudio Ranieri helped Fulham keep their first clean sheet of the season as they claimed a valuable point at St. James’ Park after a scrappy stalemate with Newcastle United. Ranieri played an extra centre back to strengthen his leaky defence and Fulham successfully nullified Rafa Benitez’s ponderous side as the Magpies failed to register a single shot on target. The visitors might have won it at the end with Aleksandar Mitrovic seeing his shot blocked by the arm of Jamal Lascalles and substitute Aboubakar Kamara running in on goal at the death.
Mitrovic, making his first return to St. James’ Park since making his loan move to Craven Cottage permanent in the summer, was adamant that he should have had a penalty after Lascalles threw himself in front of his close-range effort but the Serbian striker was a terribly isolated figure for much of the afternoon. He might have done better with the game’s first chance but Martin Dubravka got his angles right to save a tame shot. Dubravka, who almost passed the ball straight to Mitrovic three minutes from time when he dawdled in possession, was then indebted to Lascalles for stopping Kamara’s storming run with a superb sliding tackle.
All that drama at the death was out of a character with an otherwise soporific encounter. The first half was woefully short on quality, with both sides giving the ball away far too easily. Sergio Rico was largely untroubled in the Fulham goal save for the odd punch, although he saved his best right hander for Alfie Mawson’s cheek just after the half hour when a mix-up in the visitors’ defence nearly presented Newcastle with a rare sight of goal. Denis Odoi produced the timeliest of interventions to nod clear at the back post with Ayoze Perez poised to turn home Lascalles’ header from a Ki Sung-Yeung free-kick.
Newcastle probed patiently in the second period as Fulham sat deeper, but they gradually began to run out of ideas. The loudest the home crowd got was in barracking Martin Atkinson for waving away three penalty appeals, the most convincing of which saw Joe Bryan seem to pull down substitute Kenedy at the far post. Bryan almost made the most of his reprieve when he fired across the face of goal and wide from just inside the box after latching onto a clever Mitrovic lay-off. The home side’s clearest chances came from set plays and Fabian Schar spurned the best of them heading a corner from Matt Ritchie onto the roof of the net.
Fulham’s first clean sheet took them level on points with Huddersfield, who they face over the festive period in what looks like a crunch encounter at Craven Cottage, but it was a measure of how close they came in the closing stages that the point felt like something of a disappointment. They defended manfully, with Alfie Mawson, Tim Ream and Odoi outstanding frequently throwing their bodies in front of the ball, and there were none of the catastrophic errors that have characterised their return to the top flight. Ranieri spoke earlier this week about his desire to build his side from the back and such solidity will be needed in the weeks ahead if Fulham are to climb out of the relegation zone.
NEWCASTLE UNITED (4-4-1-1): Dubravka; Manquillo (Yedlin 84), Dummett, Schar, Lascalles; Ki Sung-Yueng, Diame, Atsu (Kenedy 72), Ritchie; Perez; Rondon. Subs (not used): Woodman, Fernandez, Hayden, Joselu.
FULHAM (3-4-2-1): Rico; Odoi, Mawson, Ream; Christie, Bryan, Chambers, Seri; Cairney (Ayite 82), Schurrle (Kamara 76); Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Le Marchand, McDonald, Johansen, Vietto.
BOOKED: Kamara, Seri.
REFEREE: Martin Atkinson (West Yorkshire).