Four consecutive draws suggest that Fulham are far more competitive than in the early weeks of a Premier League campaign that suggested an immediate return to the Championship was a racing certainty. Much of that improvement is down to a new system devised by Scott Parker, who was absent from the dugout this afternoon as a member of his family had contracted coronavirus, and the Cottagers’ new found defensive solidity was on show as they blunted Southampton’s pretty passing but struggled for much penetration of their own. A third clean sheet at Craven Cottage already matches their entire home tally from their last disastrous top flight campaign, but toothlessness in the final third could yet prove decisive come May.
After nine years without a league goalless draw at Craven Cottage, here was a second stalemate in as many matches. Southampton were denied two potential winners due to the intervention of VAR, with Shane Long twice correctly ruled offside when he lashed in a glorious left-footed finish and then supplied a cross for Theo Walcott to turn home late on. The visitors enjoyed more of the ball as the game went on, but Fulham more than played their part and made have snatched a winner themselves at the death, with substitute Aleksandar Mitrovic shooting wide and Dale Stephens making a brave block to deny Ola Aina right on the whistle.
The hosts looked the likelier scorers in the early stages with the adventure of Ademola Lookman and Antonee Robinson posing serious problems for the Saints down the Fulham left. The on-loan Leipzig winger was Fulham’s most potent threat, seeing an early shot, blocked and then smothered by Alex McCarthy, and then tried to find Ruben Loftus-Cheek but his pass was blocked by the arm of Jan Bednarek, with both referee Darren England and the video assistant referee Jon Moss waving away shouts for a penalty.
Fulham’s finest move of the match should have produced the opening goal moments later. They swarmed around Southampton on the half way line with Bobby Decordova-Reid winning possession and freeing Loftus-Cheek down the right. The on-loan Chelsea midfielder showed a real turn of pace to motor clear and produced a dangerous low cross to the back post. Instead of pulling the trigger, Lookman took a touch and fed Andre Frank Zambo Anguissa, whose overall excellence didn’t translate to finishing – the Cameroonian completely missed his kick from ten yards and an excellent opening evaporated.
The Whites were thankful to Alphonse Areola and a slice of luck that they weren’t made to pay for that miss immediately. Harrison Reed, eager to make an impression against his former employers, carelessly conceded a free kick in James Ward-Prowse territory and the England midfielder curled a fine effort towards the top corner. Areola did magnificently to tip it onto the woodwork and the rebound spun agonisingly away from Che Adams, denying the Saints striker a simple tap-in.
The second half continued in a similar cagey fashion. Fulham were disciplined but limited in the final third. Ivan Cavaleiro, operating as a false nine, spurned the sort of headed chance Mitrovic dreams of when he headed a delicious delivery from Robinson well over the bar having been left completed unattended in the penalty area. Southampton probed patiently but sorely missed the predatory finishing of Danny Ings. Shane Long lashed a snapshot from just outside the box towards goal, but Areola pushed it over the bar with a modicum of fuss, and Ibrahim Diallo, on his first Premier League start, produced an airshot to rival Anguissa’s from just outside the box when the Irish forward cut an intelligent ball back towards him.
Ralph Hassenhuttl thought his side had made the breakthrough when Ryan Bertrand clipped a ball behind the Fulham back line and Long conjured up a curling finish that made light of an acute angle, only for the offside flag to go up immediately. Walcott looked as though he had pinched it with a clever run and finish to meet Long’s low ball in with five minutes to play, but the video replays showed Long had strayed just ahead of the home defence before he crossed it in.
Fulham waited what seemed an age to introduce Mitrovic, who almost an immediate impact. The Serbian striker, who is in the worst scoring drought of his career, angled a drive just wide of McCarthy’s near post after being intelligently found on the edge of the area by Robinson and the hosts carried more of a threat in the four minutes of stoppage time than what had just preceded it. A mesmerising run from Anguissa parted the previously watertight Southampton defence but Stephens flung himself full length to prevent Aina’s venomous drive from extending McCarthy.
It says much about Fulham’s recent improvement that this will feel like two points dropped – and both Parker and the club’s hierarchy must have attacking reinforcements high on their January agenda to fully profit from a far more miserly backline.
FULHAM (3-4-3): Areola; Aina, Andersen, Adarabioyo; Decordova-Reid (Mitrovic 83), Robinson, Reed, Anguissa; Loftus-Cheek, Lookman (Kebano 90), Cavaleiro. Subs (not used): Rodak, Odoi, Ream, Hector, Bryan, Cairney, Kamara.
BOOKED: Decordova-Reid, Anguissa.
SOUTHAMPTON (4-4-2): McCarthy; Walker-Peters, Bertrand, Bednarek, Stephens; Diallo, Ward-Prowse, Walcott, Armstrong (Djenepo 90); Adams, Long (N’Lundulu 90). Subs (not used): Forster, Valery, Salisu, Smallbone, Tella, Vokins, Obafemi.
REFEREE: Darren England (South Yorkshire).
VIDEO ASSISTANT REFEREE: Jon Moss (West Yorkshire).