Feisty Fulham fall short

Looking at the scoreline, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this SW6 derby proved to be a Sunday lunchtime stroll for Chelsea. It looked like it could have been when Pedro capitalised on a shocking defensive error to give the home side an early lead, but you could tell from the regularity of Maurizio Sarri’s second half prowling that their slender advantage was far from comfortable. Claudio Ranieri couldn’t claim a point on his return to Stamford Bridge, but the hosts needed the cushion of a late Reuben Loftus-Cheek strike to be certain of all three points.

Fulham began with an early demonstration of their ambition with Cyrus Christie, who had an excellent game in shackling Eden Hazard, galloping into space down the right flank and firing a speculative shot towards the far corner. It lacked power and Kepa Arrizabalaga was able to easily get down and gather it in. The Whites, roared on by a raucous travelling support, soon shot themselves in the foot, however, with Denis Odoi and Jean-Michael Seri getting in a terrible mess in central midfield. Seri failed to release a pass from the Belgian defender swiftly enough, allowing N’Golo Kante to swoop in, sweep up field and play the perfect pass for Pedro, who ghosted inside Alfie Mawson and measured a perfect finish inside the far post.

The visitors could have been overwhelmed by the grievous nature of the goal they had conceded with just four minutes on the clock, but they continued to patiently probe in front of the Chelsea defence. Tom Cairney created an opening for Calum Chambers, who was superb throughout in the holding midfield role again, but the Arsenal loanee’s drive from distance was straight at Kepa. At the other end, Sergio Rico had another fine game in the Fulham goal – making two splendid reaction saves from Oliver Giroud as the first half drew to a close to keep his side in the contest.

Ranieri was decisive at half time and withdrew Stefan Johansen and Ryan Sessegnon in favour of Floyd Ayite and Aboubakar Kamara. Although an early opening came the way of Pedro, Fulham’s switch of both personnel and system enlivened them as an attacking force. Antonio Rudiger almost sent Christie’s cross into his own goal as he tried to keep it away from Aleksandar Mitrovic, before Kepa somehow kept out Chambers’ near post header from the ensuing corner. It was clearly not going to be Chambers day, when after a beautiful drag back on the edge of the box, he thumped an effort towards the far corner that was superbly pawed away by the Chelsea goalkeeper.

Rico did brilliantly to keep out an effort from Hazard that had taken a wicked deflection but he had no chance with the clinching goal, scored by substitute Loftus-Cheek, that settled the contest eight minutes from time. It owed much to Hazard ghosting away from a clutch of Fulham defenders after some excellent approach play on the edge of the box. The Belgian picked the perfect time to release Loftus-Cheek, who had escaped the attentions of Maxime Le Marchand, and the England international drove home at the near post.

Fulham continued to push forward in added time, but couldn’t find a route back into the contest despite efforts from Mawson, Christie and Kamara going close. Ranieri declared himself pleased with his side’s fight as well as their reaction to his half-time changes, but he will know that Fulham’s fate is highly unlikely to be settled by these sort of results and more in the fixtures like Wednesday’s, at home against another of his former clubs, Leicester City.

CHELSEA (4-3-3): Arrizabalaga; Azpilicueta, Alonso (Zappacosta 78), Rüdiger, David Luiz; Kanté, Jorginho, Kovacic (Loftus-Cheek 67); Pedro, Hazard, Giroud (Morata 70). Subs (not used): Caballero, Christensen, Fàbregas, Willian.

BOOKED: Azpilicueta, Morata.

GOALS: Pedro (4), Loftus-Cheek (82).

FULHAM (4-1-2-1-2): Rico; Christie, Le Marchand, Odoi, Mawson; Seri; Chambers, Johansen (Ayite 45); Cairney (Kebano 76); Mitrovic, R. Sessegnon (Kamara 45). Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Ream, Bryan, Cisse.

BOOKED: Odoi.

REFEREE: Craig Pawson (South Yorkshire).

ATTENDANCE: 40,551

Ranieri delighted with Fulham’s fighting spirit

Claudio Ranieri was delighted with Fulham’s fighting spirit after the Whites shrugged off the setback of conceding an early goal to beat Southampton and move off the bottom of the Premier League table.

The Italian admitted that his first game in charge of his new side was an emotional moment, but professed himself pleased with the focus and desire of his players. Ranieri felt that his team had made ‘little steps’ in terms of improving some of the problems that have dogged their faltering start to life back in the top flight, but recognised that Fulham’s first victory for more than three months will lift morale around the club.

He told his post-match press conference:

For me to come back to the Premier League is emotional. For me to come to Fulham is emotional. Emotions were high. It was an important match, and everybody is pleased, but it’s a little step – it’s not an easy job. I was waiting for this kind of match and it was very difficult. Southampton are a good team, and we’re in a bad position. We suffered a lot, but I’m very pleased with my players because they never gave up and fought.

We wanted to win, we showed very good fighting spirit, and our energy levels were high. I asked the players to fight until the end. After the first goal, I wanted to see our reaction and it was amazing. I’m very pleased with our fans too, they supported us until the end.

Ranieri was disappointed with the amount of scoring opportunities the Whites offered Southampton and lavished praise on Spanish goalkeeper Sergio Rico who pulled off a number of outstanding saves.

We played a good match but gave too many chances to our opponents. Of course, I want a clean sheet and want to improve our defensive work. The whole team has to maintain the right position. I always want more. Rico had to make too many saves and I don’t like it when our goalkeeper has to work too much.

He also had high praise for Serbian striker Aleksandar Mitrovic, whose double eventually proved decisive, and scotched any suggestions that the former Newcastle forward wouldn’t fit into his long-term plans.

For me, Mitrovi? is one of the best strikers in Europe. He’s only 24 and I think he can improve more and more. At the end of the season, you’ll see how many goals he’ll score.

Mitrovic brace gives Ranieri a dream start

A timely double from Aleksandar Mitrovic handed Claudio Ranieri a dream start to life at Craven Cottage as Fulham sneaked past Southampton in a five-goal thriller this afternoon.

Ranieri promised a more pragmatic style of football after replacing Slavisa Jokanovic with the aim of keeping Fulham in the Premier League and, whilst his new side looked defensively secure, their first victory in three months owed plenty to the attacking philosophy that the Serbian imbued in SW6. Their equaliser, after Stuart Armstrong had punished some slack defending, came from a flowing seven pass move down the left flank and Fulham’s third arrived after Cyrus Christie had surged deep into Southampton territory.

In such an open contest, it was likely that both sides’ defensive frailties would be severely examined. Fulham were indebted to another outstanding display of goalkeeping from Sergio Rico, who produced a splendid double save to deny Armstrong and Manolo Gabbiadini in quick succession, and continued to repel wave after wave of Southampton attacks. He could do little about their opening goal, when both Tom Cairney and Jean-Michael Seri switched off, allowing Nathan Redmond to reach Matt Targett’s throw. The winger was the visitors’ most potent threat all afternoon and, although Maxime Le Marchand got a touch to his cross, Armstrong tucked away a clinical finish.

Too often this season Fulham heads had dropped decisively after they had gone behind. It was the youngest member of the side, Ryan Sessegnon, who provided a spark with a determined run from midfield and a powerful shot that flew just over the bar. The teenager was heavily involved in the equaliser just after the half hour. Southampton stood off Sessegnon and he found Cairney, whose clever pass released Le Marchand, who has often appeared a reluctant left back. This time the Frenchman galloped right to the byline and produced a splendid cross which Mitrovic stooped to guide into the far corner.

Young Sessegnon was far from finished. He produced a tremendous run down the left, bamboozling Cedric Soares in the process. and delivered the perfect low cross for Andre Schurrle to tap Fulham in front at the back post. The ten minute turn around represented the first time that the Whites had led since going 2-0 up at Brighton on September 1st – and we all know how that ended.

The home side were penned back in the early stages of the second half as Southampton pushed forward. Ranieri’s men almost grabbed a third on the break when Mitrovic’s powerful low drive was expertly saved by McCarthy and the Saints went straight up the other end to equalise. A poor defensive header from Sessegnon allowed Soares to flick the ball into the path of Armstrong just outside the box and the Scot drove a thumping finish beyond even Rico’s grasp.

Once again, the desire of the league’s bottom side could have been called into question. Instead, Fulham stepped up the intensity and fought for every ball. Their determination was typified by Schurrle chasing a lost cause to the corner flag and forcing a frenzied clearance from Wesley Hoedt, which fell kindly for Christie. The Republic of Ireland international then deftly beat his man and swung over a high cross that was smartly flicked on by Sessegnon for Mitrovic at the back post. The Serbian swiftly readjusted his feet and volleyed splendidly into the bottom corner, leaving McCarthy rooted to the spot.

There was still nearly half an hour for Fulham to hang on – and the finale was terrifying and gripping in equal measure. Southampton rallied and probably should have claimed a point. Rico made two further excellent reaction stops, beating out a volley from Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and then somehow foiled substitute Michael Obafemi, when he looked certain to score. In between, Obafemi somehow scooped a shot over the bar into the Putney End having beaten Le Marchand to a through ball. Five minutes of stoppage time seemed like a lifetime before Rico clung onto another Højbjerg effort and Michael Oliver finally called time on proceedings.

FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Rico; Christie, Le Marchand, Odoi, Mawson; Chambers, Seri (Johansen 68); Schurrle (Kamara 74), R. Sessegnon, Cairney; Mitrovic (Ayite 86). Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Ream, Bryan, Kebano.

BOOKED: Mawson, Johansen.

GOALS: Mitrovic (32, 63), Schurrle (42).

SOUTHAMPTON (4-2-3-1): McCarthy; Soares, Targett, Yoshida, Hoedt; Lemina, Højbjerg; Gabbiadini, Redmond, Armstrong (Obafemi 81); Austin (Elyounoussi 68). Subs (not used): Gunn, Vestergaard, Stephens, Davis, Ward-Prowse.

BOOKED: Hoedt, Højbjerg, Obafemi.

GOALS: Armstrong (18, 53).

REFEREE: Michael Oliver (Northumberland).

ATTENDANCE: 24,603.

Slavisa Jokanovic – Simply a Fulham hero

Even if you didn’t want to, it was easy enough to construct a case for Slavisa Jokanovic to go. Fulham were bottom of the Premier League after twelve games and the early sparkle of their performances had long since dwindled out. It appeared as though his bold possession-based game and attacking philosophy had brutally met its match in the unforgiving world of the top flight. He couldn’t decide on his best back line, never mind his bad eleven, and there was an alarming lack of fight from a side that used to put their bodies on the line. And yet, when the news came on Tuesday morning that he’d be replaced by Claudio Ranieri, there was a sense of shock and profound sadness.

The bond between Jokanovic and the Fulham fans was forged firstly in a moment of genuine turmoil for the football club. Fulham’s senior officials had badly bungled the follow-up to sacking Kit Symons and the Serbian arrived in south west London with the Whites in serious danger of plummeting into League One. Jokanovic couldn’t even strengthen a badly unbalanced and threadbare squad with a transfer embargo to navigate through in his first few weeks. His response told us a lot about the character of the man – he grinned and bore it and gradually hauled his team away from the relegation zone, not through the scintillating football that we came to know and love, but at times seemingly through the sheer force of his well.

The serious surgery undertaken on his squad in the summer of 2016 troubled some, with the departure of Ross McCormack and Moussa Dembele leaving his side looking light in the forward areas, as a host of new faces arrived in double quick time. Scott Malone soon established himself as a world-beating, offensive full back whilst Sone Aluko began to dazzle on the wing. The assured first steps of Ryan Sessegnon into senior football at the tender age of sixteen were encouraged by Jokanovic, who – following a promising League Cup debut at Leyton Orient – handed the teenager a first league start at Elland Road. Just as he would going forward, the steely Sessegnon hardly let anyone down.

Jokanovic’s forward-thinking style took a while to transmit itself to the team, with unsteady starts to the campaign in both of Fulham’s last two Championship seasons. But his boldness was eventually rewarded with some of the most spellbinding football ever produced by a Fulham side, including the one that decimated the First Division under Jean Tigana all those years ago. You might point to the aftermath of that desperate December afternoon in Sunderland as the moment when Fulham’s fortunes definitively turned – but, for me, the fearlessness with which Fulham poured forward to beat Sheffield United by the odd goal in nine, showed just how bold Jokanovic’s charges could be.

There were so many magnificent moments during the 23-match unbeaten run that almost carried the Whites to automatic promotion that it is impossible to pinpoint just one. The impacts of Aleksandar Mitrovic, who terrorised Championship defences almost instantly after his arrival on a pivotal January loan from Newcastle United, and Matt Targett, who seemed to have had years of experience of playing behind Sessegnon, were crucial in reviving Fulham’s fortunes. Some of those away days were legendary – the euphoria of Mitrovic’s late winner at Preston North End was something to be held, whilst the majesty of Kevin McDonald’s long-range effort at Millwall will live long in the memory.

Nobody wanted to be in the play-offs, of course, and it seemed like Fulham’s history would repeat itself when the side subsided rather meekly in the first-leg at Derby. But, then came the second half revival on one of the great nights at Craven Cottage, with Sessegnon’s predatory instincts and an iconic header from Denis Odoi swinging a tight tie Fulham’s way. I don’t need to recount the wonder of Wembley to any Fulham follower: the ecstasy of Tom Cairney’s gorgeously crafted goal, and then the bloody-mindedness of a spirited rearguard that resisted Aston Villa’s search for an equaliser after Odoi’s dismissal – typified by Oliver Norwood’s superb challenge shortly after stepping off the bench.

Jokanovic is his own harshest critic. He will be smarting at just how easily his side was prized open by English football’s elite and how frail Fulham looked against Cardiff and Huddersfield, two of their rivals in what now looks like a battle royale to escape relegation. The decision to replace the Serb with Claudio Ranieri may yet prove to be a masterstroke. But my sense is that Jokanovic had earned a little more faith through the glorious football his team had played over the past three years. The fact that Shahid Khan had spent more than £100m in supplementing the squad this summer ultimately counted against Jokanovic, but the coach who imbued Fulham with a distinctive identity and a sense of adventure will always be remembered fondly as a Fulham hero. He deserves nothing less.

Fulham replace Jokanovic with Ranieri

Fulham have sacked Slavisa Jokanovic and replaced him with Claudio Ranieri as they attempt to arrest their alarming start to the Premier League season.

Jokanovic, who led the Whites to promotion via the Championship play-offs last season, was dismissed following Sunday’s defeat at Liverpool with Fulham bottom of the Premier League. The Cottagers had taken just five points from their first 12 games of the new campaign.

Ranieri, who led Leicester to the Premier League title in 2016, will take charge of his first match after the international break when Southampton visit Craven Cottage on Saturday 24 November. The Italian has signed ‘a multi-year contract’ to take over the London club.

Fulham chairman Shahid Khan said: ‘Claudio is risk-free and ready-made for the Premier League, and particularly so for what we need at this moment at Fulham. His recent body of work with Leicester City is literally legendary and then you look at Claudio’s experience with Chelsea and big clubs throughout Europe, and it’s pretty evident we are welcoming an extraordinary football man to Fulham Football Club’.