By the bitter end, the travelling fans were in mutinous mood. You couldn’t blame them. This was as close to a must-win match as Fulham have in their pitiful predicament, but you wouldn’t have known it from the passive football the visitors played at St. Mary’s. Their passing was nervy, a shaky defence even more jittery and there wasn’t much of an attack at all. Southampton were clinical and strolled to a much-needed win that saw them climb out of the drop zone – but there seems to be little salvation for Claudio Ranieri.
The away supporters called for his head, loudly and regularly throughout a contest that Fulham were never really in. He wasn’t the only one on the receiving end of some opprobrium either. ‘Are you watching, Tony Khan?’ came the chorus from the away end. The Fulham co-owner and director of football operations surely was – and that fact alone should mean that Ranieri, described as ‘a risk-free’ option at the time of his appointment and who wasn’t willing to give his usual cheerful assurances about his own position after the game, doesn’t survive in his job for much longer.
The Italian’s team selection was downright bizarre. In a game Fulham had to win, he selected three defensive midfielders – one of whom, Kevin McDonald, hadn’t played for more than three months. Benching Ryan Sessegnon was just as baffling. If it was designed to make the visitors harder to play through, that plan failed abysmally. Southampton, with six home wins in 37 games, were on the front foot from the off. Nathan Redmond typified their offensive approach seeing two long-range efforts fly wide and Charlie Austin did have the ball in the net, but Fulham were fortunate that the former QPR striker was harshly adjudged to have fouled Sergio Rico.
Fulham’s reprieve didn’t last long. Ryan Bertrand, a regular threat during an adventurous performance from left wing-back, whipped in a devilish delivery that could only be turned behind for a corner. Rico flapped horribly at the set piece, only punching to the edge of the area where Oriel Romeu fired low into the net. Fulham couldn’t muster a significant response – despite Aleksandar Mitrovic toiling manfully up front – and worse was to come five minutes before the interval.
Redmond cut in from the flank without being closed down, although Rico saved the winger’s low shot from eighteen yards, he was helpless to do anything about James Ward-Prowse’s follow-up. The Saints continued to dominate after the interval – with Fulham making little impression on the home goal despite being two-down. They had just four touches in the Southampton penalty area throughout the second half. Mitrovic might feel he should have done better with a decent early chance and Ryan Babel rattled the crossbar with sixteen minutes left – but you felt as though even that was too little too late. Much like sacking Ranieri when the damage has already been done.
SOUTHAMPTON (3-4-2-1): Gunn; Bednarek, Yoshida, Vestergaard; Valery, Bertrand, Romeu, Højbjerg; Ward-Prowse, Redmond; Austin (Long 64). Subs (not used): McCarthy, Stephens, Targett, Armstrong, Elyounoussi, Gallagher.
GOALS: Romeu (23), Ward-Prowse (40).
FULHAM (4-3-1-2): Rico; Odoi, Bryan, Nordtveit, Ream; McDonald (R. Sessegnon 69), Chambers, Anguissa; Cairney (Vietto 69); Mitrovic, Babel. Subs (not used): Fabri, Christie, Cisse, Markovic, Ayite.
REFEREE: Anthony Taylor (Lancashire).