The relief around Craven Cottage was palpable. If Fulham were written off at the start of the season, plenty of pundits seized on their continued defensive vulnerability to write their Premier League obituaries. Scott Parker, lauded as one of the brightest British managers having masterminded a Championship play-off final victory over Brentford, was suddenly considered well out of his depth. The pressure, having gone six games without a win, was palpable. Beating fellow strugglers West Brom was a necessity if only to block out the noise.
Parker, an affable but quietly confident character, professed his belief in both his charges and his personal ability even after the disappointment of last week’s defeat by Crystal Palace. He only made a couple of changes, introducing Joachim Andersen in central defence a couple of weeks ahead of schedule after an ankle injury, and recalling Bobby Decordova-Reid on the right flank. Fulham had to survive an early scare, when a mishit cross from Conor Townsend wrongfooted Alphonse Areola and came back off the crossbar, and intially appeared hesitant in possession, but the tigerishness of Maria Lemina, who knitted things together nicely in midfield, gradually garnered the hosts a foothold.
Ademola Lookman, a livewire from the left in his early outings since his deadline day loan move from Leipzig, provided Fulham’s first threatening moments. The tricky winger drifted into dangerous spaces in front of the West Brom defence and drove a right-footed effort just wide of the far post. The Whites began to play the pretty passing football they prefer and went in front with a goal of real quality. It owed much to Andre Frank Anguissa’s adventure from central midfield as he carried the ball to the edge of the box before finding Antonee Robinson in an advanced position on the left wing. The American international produced a quality cross that Aleksandar Mitrovic nodded unselfishly back across goal for Decordova-Reid to head home, despite Branislav Ivanovic’s desperate efforts on the goal-line.
The goal galvanised Fulham, but even they would have been surprised at how swiftly a second one arrived. It came from an unlikely source, with Ola Aina starting and finishing a flowing move down the right, collecting a cushioned pass from Mitrovic, and rifling an unstoppable left-footed strike into the top corner from 20 yards. The former Chelsea trainee had only scored twice in 121 senior appearances before tonight – and neither were anywhere near as spectacular as that sublime finish.
West Brom did spurn a glorious opportunity to pull a goal back before the break, when Conor Gallagher pinched possession from Anguissa and played in Karlan Grant, who lacked the composure he showed against Brighton last week, lashing a rushed effort well wide of the near post when he had time to take the ball on into the penalty area. Indeed, it was Fulham who could have put the game to bed before half-time when another purposeful run from Anguissa culminated in a venomous shot that stung the palms of Sam Johnstone.
Lemina, who had screened the back four impressively, was withdrawn in favour of Harrison Reed at the start of the second half but Fulham managed their lead professionally. The Baggies’ only genuine chances came courtesy of a Matheus Pereira free-kick that was smashed into the wall and when a tame Grant header from Darnell Furlong’s inviting cross looped safely into Areola’s arms. The hosts were comfortable enough to keep the ball, occasionally injecting pace and drive, especially in the form of a rampaging Robinson down the left flank.
Both Anguissa and Cairney, who produced an excellent display in the middle of the park, showcased some fancy footwork to fashion half chances for themselves inside the West Brom penalty area and Robinson produced another excellent cross for Mitrovic, although the Serbian couldn’t quite provide a telling contact at the far post having outmuscled Semi Ajayi. Cairney almost caught Johnstone wandering into no-man’s land with a delicious chip, but Townsend scrambled it off the line before Ajayi blocked Decordova-Reid’s follow-up. At the other end, West Brom’s night was summed up when substitute Callum Robinson spotted Areola off his line but his effort from halfway line was well off target and only just dribbled over the line for a goal-kick.
Perhaps the most pleasing element of the evening was Fulham’s first league clean sheet of the season. Areola was not seriously stretched in goal and, although there will be far sterner tests ahead, the early impressions of a rejigged back four, of whom Andersen is the eldest at only 24, were positive. A relatively comfortable victory lifted the Londoners out of the relegation zone and within one win of Manchester United. That should ease the pressure on Parker for a while.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Areola; Aina, A. Robinson, Adarabioyo, Andersen; Lemina (Reed 45), Anguissa, Cairney; Decordova-Reid (Cavaleiro 84), Lookman (Bryan 90), Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Rodak, Odoi, Ream, Loftus-Cheek.
BOOKED: Decordova-Reid, Lookman, Reed.
GOALS: Decordova-Reid (26), Aina (30).
WEST BROMWICH ALBION (4-1-4-1): Johnstone; Furlong, Townsend, Ivanovic, Ajayi; Livermore (Sawyers 56); Krovinovic (Phillips 70), Gallagher, Pereira (C. Robinson 56), Diangana; Grant. Subs (not used): Button, Bartley, Gibbs, Edwards.
BOOKED: Gallagher, Sawyers.
REFEREE: Simon Hooper (Wiltshire).