Given that Leicester City are aiming for a tilt at the title and Fulham are fighting for their lives at the foot of the table, it was not unreasonable to expect a gulf in class between the two sides at Craven Cottage tonight. Brendan Rodgers’ men were professional, progressive and clinical but the ease with which they established a two-goal cushion before half time and how straightforwardly it was protected will have infuriated Scott Parker. Fulham might have improved from their calamitous start to life in the top flight, but you already get the sense it won’t save them from the drop.
The Foxes, so well-drilled under Rodgers, never seriously looked like succumbing to another surprise defeat to mirror the one they suffered at the hands of Fulham in November. That autumnal night at in the east Midlands was the genesis of Parker’s remodelled 3-4-3 – a tactical tweak that delivered both an upturn in performances and points – but the division now appears to have wised up to the blueprint now. Fulham’s pretty passing took them as far as the final third but, as so often this season, they lacked the incisiveness to go much further. A frustrating evening was summed up as early as the eleventh minute when Aleksandar Mitrovic, starved of service having been restored to the leading role up front, saw his finish bravely blocked by Caglar Soyuncu after a lovely link-up between Antonee Robinson and Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa down the left.
Leicester’s football had more fluency and purpose. The key to Fulham’s win at the King Power had been Harrison Reed shackling the influence of James Maddison at the apex of the Foxes midfield. The England international had served early notice of his threat here, with a speculative shot stinging the palms of Alphonse Areola, but the hosts failed to heed the warning. Maddison whipped in a majestic ball from the right and Kelechi Iheanacho glided away from Joachim Andersen and Ola Aina to plant a header home from close range.
Soyuncu might have doubled Leicester’s with a venomous volley after he had stayed up from a corner but Areola’s quick reflexes bailed Fulham out. Parker’s charges had plenty of the ball but struggled for penetration. Mitrovic was reduced to trying the spectacular when a Soyuncu header dropped invitingly 25 yards from goal, but the Serbian striker’s shot flew harmlessly over. The home side’s clearest opening came from a corner, when Kasper Schmeichel produced a splendid save to claw Tosin Adarabioyo’s free header over the bar. In a neat encapsulation of Fulham’s luckless campaign, ninety seconds later they were 2-0 down.
Maddison was the orchestrator of a quick counter-attack, gliding away from Andersen, before unselfishly teeing up James Justin as he entered the penalty area. The full back had run fully eighty yards to join the Leicester break, criminally allowed to venture into dangerous territory by Kenny Tete, darted away from Adarabioyo and made light of a heavy touch as he rounded Areola to roll home the second. On the stroke of half time, that felt like game over. Areola saved with his legs from Harvey Barnes in stoppage time to prevent the Foxes from running riot.
Parker switched to a back four at half-time, sending on Mario Lemina and Ivan Cavaleiro in attempt to find a way back into the contest. Fulham certainly upped the tempo and the Portuguese winger almost had an immediate impact. A scorer off the bench at the Hawthorns on Saturday, Cavaleiro nearly repeated the trick two minutes after the restart, cutting inside and firing fractionally wide of Schmeichel’s far post. Ademola Lookman let fly from 25 yards after finding a pocket of space from a throw-in but his shot cleared the crossbar on a night where the nippy winger was all too often on the periphery.
Leicester were largely happy to hold onto their advantage, although the returning Ricardo Pereira was denied a spectacular third by an offside flag. Fulham pushed for a lifeline but their likeliest goalscorer, Bobby Decordova-Reid, didn’t enter until twenty minutes from time, replacing the anonymous Ruben Loftus-Cheek. The Jamaican international, utilised in a variety of roles already this season, almost grabbed a route back in the contest with ten minutes to play, but his low shot was deflected into the side-netting by a last-ditch intervention from Justin.
Even if they didn’t lose ground on their closest challengers, Fulham’s position already looks perilous, especially in light of picking up just two draws from trips to Brighton and West Brom last week. Parker’s team are tougher to break down – not an easy feat given the amount of goals they were shipping at the start of the season – but look ponderous and lacking punch in attack. Seven points adrift of seventeenth, something needs to change and swiftly.
FULHAM (3-4-3): Areola; Adarabioyo, Aina, Andersen; Tete (Cavaleiro 45), Robinson, Reed, Anguissa (Lemina 45); Lookman, Loftus-Cheek (Decordova-Reid 70), Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Rodak, Odoi, Hector, Ream, Onomah.
BOOKED: Reed, Aina, Cavaleiro.
LEICESTER CITY (4-2-3-1): Schmeichel; Pereira, Justin, Evans, Soyuncu; Chodhury (Mendy 61), Tielemans; Perez (Albrighton 61), Barnes (Amartey 76), Maddison; Iheanacho. Subs (not used): Ward, Fuchs, Thomas, Under, Leshabela, Daley-Campbell.
GOALS: Iheanacho (17), Justin (44).
REFEREE: Rob Jones (Cheshire).
VIDEO ASSISTANT REFEREE: Lee Mason (Lancashire).