This was the classical Roy Hodgson away performance that Fulham fans came to love during his three years at Craven Cottage. Soak up early pressure, remain compact and hit a punch drunk opposition on the break. It requires commitment, work ethic and a ruthless instinct in the final third – but it rather encapsulated the difference between an established top flight side, in Crystal Palace, and Scott Parker’s Fulham, who will quickly be cut adrift at the foot of the table if they are not careful.
Palace were workmanlike rather than flashy, but that was enough for the Eagles to record a comfortable victory. Wilfred Zaha was to the fore again, with flashy skills, pace and an appetite to take on defenders, having already fired a warning shot before the visitors went ahead in the ninth minute. Alphonese Areola saved well after Zaha had escaped the attentions of Ola Aina, a regular occurrence throughout the afternoon, but Fulham failed to clear their lines. Zaha played a delicious no-look pace through the centre of the defence and Jairo Riedewald, untracked by anyone in white, crept in behind the back line to slot his first Palace goal past the stranded goalkeeper.
The scoreline felt harsh on Fulham, who had began brightly and at a high tempo, and that conclusion only seemed more justified as the home side made all the running as the first half went on. Ademola Lookman looked dangerous cutting in from the left, with one gorgeous touch almost freeing Aleksandar Mitrovic, whose shot was blocked on the edge of the box, and Antonee Robinson provided plenty of width from full back. Fulham’s best chances fell to Lookman, who twice hit the post with instinctive low drives. The first was helped onto the woodwork by an alert Vitor Guaita, but the goalkeeper had no chance of reaching the second, and the hosts’ afternoon was summed up by the fact that the rebound fell perfectly for Mitrovic, whose effort was deflected over by Scott Dann, an important defensive touch that the referee missed.
Palace might have been disciplined in defence and far from adventurous themselves, but they looked threatening every time they got into Fulham’s final third. Their likeliest source of a second was Zaha, who frequently left a chastened Aina trailing in his wake, and might have doubled the Eagles’ lead with a header, but guided Andros Townsend’s inviting cross wide. Michy Batshuayi did find the back of net, but was correctly ruled offside, whilst Luka Millivojevic’s stoppage time free-kick flew fractionally over, although that would have been an injustice after a generous award from referee Graham Scott.
The second half followed a similar pattern. Fulham were more urgent in their play, dominated possession but created precious little. Mitrovic’s best chance was a header he mistimed from a Tom Cairney free-kick, whilst when the Whites went a bit more direct, Cairney found Guaita’s gloves with a speculative effort that lacked conviction from just outside the area. But just as Fulham looked to build up a head of steam, they were caught cold at the other end. Batshuayi was afforded far too much room to roam down the right and his low cross gave Zaha a simple tap-in. The talismanic forward found the far post more tricky to navigate than Fulham’s defence, colliding with it as he finished – and the game felt up.
Fulham toiled manfully, but never seriously looked like retrieving the situation. Lookman persevered with those jinking runs from the left, shooting over as space opened up briefly, but it was Palace who came closest to extending their lead with Tyrick Mitchell drawing a save from Areola. Parker shuffled his pack, but any late revival was doomed by substitute Aboubakar Kamara’s wild lunge at Ebere Eze, which was correctly punished by a straight red card. Cairney did provide a consolation in the fifth minute of injury time, with a stunning curler into the top corner from distance, but the fact that it proved only a mere footnote shows just how much work Scott Parker has ahead of him.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Areola; Aina, Robinson, Adarabioyo, Ream; Lemina (Reed 79), Anguissa (Kamara 66); Lookman, Loftus-Cheek (Decordova-Reid 74), Cairney; Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Rodak, Le Marchand, Odoi, Bryan.
SENT OFF: Kamara.
GOAL: Cairney (90+5).
CRYSTAL PALACE (4-4-2): Guaita; Clyne (van Aanholt 72), Mitchell, Dann, Kouyate; Milivojevic, Riedewald (Sakho 85), Townsend, Schlupp (Eze 76); Zaha, Batshuayi. Subs (not used): Henderson, Kelly, van Aanholt, Sakho, Meyer, Eze, Benteke.
GOALS: Riedewald (9), Zaha (64).
REFEREE: Graham Scott (Oxfordshire).