Fulham’s shambles of a season has largely been of their own making. Haphazard and costly recruitment, three managers, a lack of a discernible strategy and dire defending have all contributed to what looks like a one-way ticket to the Championship. But at the London Stadium tonight, the Whites had a justifiable grievance – all their self-inflicted wounds have been damaging, but nothing was more critical to altering the course of this London derby than an equaliser that Javier Hernandez punched home midway through the first half.
Claudio Ranieri, gentleman that he is, was quite reserved in his post-match press conference “It’s too easy to say yes,” he said, when asked if the handball had affected the outcome. “After the equaliser West Ham increased their confidence, and we were a little scared. It was a big pity the referee was covered [unsighted]. Only he knows the truth”.
Ranieri’s rueful smile told you all you needed to know. So did the furious reaction of the Fulham players. They knew how pivotal such a goal could be – especially with their ropey defence not known for keeping clean sheets. The evening had began unexpectedly well. The Whites attacked from the outset and Ryan Babel should have scored inside the first 35 seconds having seized on a sloppy backpass from Pablo Zabaleta. The Dutch forward made amends swiftly, tucking home from close range, two minutes later after excellent work from Ryan Sessegnon down the left wing.
It took a while for West Ham to regain their composure and begin to play in the manner that Manuel Pellegrini has demanded of them this season. They actually looked most likely to level from set plays, with Issa Diop sending a free header wide after being left unmarked at a free-kick. It was a corner that provided their controversial equaliser. Sergio Rico flapped horribly at Robert Snodgrass’s delivery, allowing Angelo Ogbonna to flick the ball towards the back post where Hernandez helped it in with his hand from close range. Despite the protests, the goal stood – and Fulham rather caved in after that point.
The Hammers went in front five minutes before the break when shambolic marking at another corner allowed Diop a free run at Snodgrass’s inviting delivery and the French defender made no mistake this time – powering home an emphatic header. Ranieri sent on Andre Frank Zambo Anguissa and Lazar Markovic at half time but Fulham never really looked like getting back into the contest. It was West Ham, perked up by Manuel Lanzini’s first appearance of the season after recovering from his cruciate ligament injury, who looked the more likely to add to their lead. Rico did brilliantly to deny Marko Arnautovic but the Austrian did create a third for Michail Antonio in the first minute of stoppage time.
WEST HAM UNITED (4-3-3): Fabianski; Zabaleta (Fredericks 45), Diop, Ogbonna, Cresswell; Rice, Antonio, Noble; Snodgrass, Anderson (Lanzini 76), Hernandez (Arnautovic 64). Subs (not used): Adrian, Obiang, Nasri, Carroll.
GOALS: Hernandez (29), Diop (40), Antonio (90+1).
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Rico, Odoi, Nordtveit, Ream, Bryan; Chambers, Seri (Anguissa 45), R Sessegnon (Markovic 45), Babel, Cairney; Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Fabri, Le Marchand, Christie, Ayite, Vietto
GOAL: Babel (3).
REFEREE: Lee Mason (Lancashire).