Frustrated Ranieri points to positives

Claudio Ranieri was frustrated that his side let a winning position slip against Wolverhampton Wanderers at Craven Cottage this afternoon but believes that Fulham have made significant improvements during his tenure that should hold them in good stead as they battle relegation.

The Italian manager believes he has found a solution to Fulham’s previously leaky defence by switching to three centre backs and the Whites certainly managed to nullify Wolves’ attacking threat for much of the contest.

I think they’ve improved a lot. I think I’ve found a solution for this team with five at the back. Of course, it’s not dogmatic. The team is much better, more solid, and more comfortable. Of course we need something more when we have the ball because when you’re bottom, it’s not so calm, you’re a little more anxious to do something good.

We have to continue this way. It’s the right way. It’s the second time we played in this shape and I’m very happy for this reason.

Ranieri was disappointed that Fulham didn’t have more to show for their domination of the first half, but was encouraged with the manner of his side’s performance against a team that have surprised the pundits and many opponents so far this season.

We are a little disappointed because I think we deserved more from the first half because we created more than them, In the second half, after we scored a goal, they found a solution. I’m satisfied with our performance, as we worked hard against a good team. It was a tactical match today.

Mitrovic had a chance to win the match. In this moment, we need to continue to stay together and be positive. When a team is bottom, everything goes against this team, but we are stronger than this. We want to react in every circumstance, in every match. If we continue to fight, train well, understand the tactical movement, we’ll do better.

We try to find a solution, but if you continue to fight, you can change things. If you lose hope, you lose everything. I believe in my players. For this reason, I believe we can make something good.

Saiss late show punishes wasteful Fulham

Aleksandar Mitrovic admitted that he felt like crying after failing to score with any of his eight efforts this afternoon – and it was easy to see why. The Serbian striker came close to grabbing a late winner when Connor Coady cleared his scuffed shot off the line, but Fulham’s frustration at letting a valuable lead slip was evident. They squandered several glorious first-half chances and couldn’t cling onto the advantage handed by them by substitute Ryan Sessegnon, with Romain Saiss stroked home his first Premier League goal with six minutes left.

At least the point lifted Claudio Ranieri’s men off the foot of the table, but with a rare win in sight, the late setback felt like a defeat. Both sides took a while to settle in the day’s early kick off and referee Andre Marriner waved away a convincing shout for handball from either side. Wolves had the earliest chances but were far from their fluent best, with Adama Traore showing signs of that blistering pace when he darted into the penalty area from the right but skied his shot from the edge of the box. Raul Jimenez then fashioned a chance for himself out of nothing with some incredible agility, but his bicycle kick didn’t come close to troubling Sergio Rico either.

Fulham eventually got going and most of their chances fell the way of Mitrovic, who wore the captain’s armband after Tom Cairney was dropped to the bench. He saw an early shot bravely blocked by Ryan Bennett and then headed wide at the far post before placing a near-post header from a cleverly worked corner just wide of the near post. He found half a yard to latch onto a promising Andre Schurrle cross, but an untimely heavy touch took him away from goal and he blazed high into the Putney End.

The home side’s football was enterprising in the final third and Mitrovic’s strength and movement was causing the Wolves back line all sorts of problems. He powered a header straight at Rui Patricio before the Portuguese goalkeeper fielded tame efforts from the former Newcastle striker and Schurrle. Fulham looked to have opened up Wolves decisively after a fabulous one-two between Cyrus Christie and Aboubakar Kamara released the Irish international in the penalty area but the low cross agonisingly eluded Mitrovic as he slid it at the back post.

Wolves looked potent on the break with the lively Jiminez almost taking advantage of a defensive mix-up and surprising Rico with a venomous shot at his near post, but Fulham then fashioned the clearest chance of the first half. Mitrovic turned Willy Boly and Coady inside out but shot straight at the onrushing Patricio, when he appeared to have most of the goal to aim at. You felt Fulham were going to pay for their wastefulness in front goal, especially as Wolves had looked a shadow of the side who had so worried Liverpool before Christmas.

Nuno Espirito Santo’s side certainly stepped it up a gear in the second half. Joao Mountinho, who had played a subdued holding role in the first half, became much more prominent after the break and Wolves began to exert a hold on proceedings. Jiminez guided a header from Johnny Otto’s cross straight at Rico before the Spanish goalkeeper repelled his clever curler from the edge of the box and Bennett drilled a long-distance effort over the crossbar, but Fulham’s new-look back three held firm. They were supported by a well-drilled midfield, marshalled superbly once again by Calum Chambers, but struggled to create chances as they had done in the first period.

Sessegnon, introduced midway through the second half for Schurrle who had faded badly, made an immediate impact. He almost laid on a goal for Kamara, but Boly diverted a dangerous cross away from the French forward just in the nick of time. There was no escape for Wolves a couple of minutes later. Jean Michael Seri’s floated free-kick located Alfie Mawson in space at the back post and when Patricio could only punch the loose ball clear, Sessegnon hammered home his first Premier League at Craven Cottage through a crowd of bodies.

Fulham’s relief was tangible but they elected to try and shut up shop inside of seeking a second. With Cairney already curiously occupying a position on the right wing, Ranieri sent on Kevin McDonald in place of Seri to try and tighten things up, but a lack of a focal point in midfield ended up inviting more Wolves pressure. The visitors sent over a succession of crosses and eventually found an equaliser with six minutes left. Saiss had a simple finish after Joe Bryan made a hash of clearing Ivan Cavaleiro’s cross when he appeared destined for Helder Costa.

There were still chances for both sides to win in. Tim Ream made a superb block in stoppage time and Mitrovic, racing onto an outstanding long ball from Rico, looked set to clinch a valuable victory when he muscled his way into the box. His finish trickled excruciatingly towards the corner, but Coady made a superb recovery and hooked the ball away to safety. It proved to be just one of those days.

FULHAM (3-4-3): Rico; Odoi, Mawson, Ream; Christie, Bryan, Chambers, Seri (McDonald 82); Kamara (Cairney 73), Schurrle (R. Sessegnon 67), Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Le Marchand, Ayite, Vietto.

BOOKED: Chambers, Christie.

GOAL: R. Sessegnon (74).

WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS (3-4-3): Patricio; Bennett, Coady, Boly; Doherty, Jonny Otto (Ruben Vinagre 82), João Moutinho, Saïss; Traoré (Cavaleiro 45), Gibbs-White (Helder Costa 63), Raul Jiminez. Subs (not used): Ruddy, Kilman, Neves, Bonatini.

BOOKED: Saiss.

GOAL: Saiss (85).

REFEREE: Andre Marriner (Birmingham).

ATTENDANCE: 24,382

Can Fulham maintain the momentum from St. James’ Park?

After the pre-Christmas miracle of a clean sheet at Newcastle, Claudio Ranieri was defiant in the face of an ignorant journalist’s question. Told that the side who is bottom of the Premier League always goes down, the Fulham boss adamantly insisted ‘it is not true’. He is, right, of course, although there are only three examples of this (West Brom in 2004, Sunderland in 2013 and Leicester City in 2014). Perhaps still buzzing from securing a point on Tyneside, Ranieri added: ‘We’ll be safe at the end, don’t worry.’

The Tinkerman has yet to settle on a regular line-up since replacing Slavisa Jokanovic in November, although Saturday’s attritional draw with a Newcastle side who failed to register a single shot on target was probably a direct result of Ranieri’s switch to a three-man central defence. Tim Ream, Alfie Mawson – who survived a punch on the nose from Sergio Rico in the first half – and Denis Odoi delivered a display of defensive excellence that has been missing all season to provide some much needed resilience at the back. The big question confronting the Fulham coach over his Christmas dinner will be whether to stick with a back three and match up with Wolves, or to add an extra attacker in order to put the visitors under some pressure this lunchtime.

Ranieri’s side haven’t won since his first game in charge – a dramatic five-goal thriller against Southampton a month ago – and remain rooted to the foot of the table. Despite that, the Italian has pointed to greater positivity in the wake of the draw against the Magpies – revealing that result had helped to lift the training ground. It might be a worry that Fulham’s ability to threaten opposition defences has been lacking in recent weeks as the Whites have failed to score in six of their last nine league games. Aleksandar Mitrovic has looked horribly isolated lately, although he will point to the fact that his late shot at Newcastle might have nestled in the far corner had it not struck the arm of Jamaal Lascalles. There is certainly something in Cyrus Christie’s suggestion that Fulham need to display more of a killer instinct if they are to stay up.

Teenage winger Ryan Sessegnon has been passed fit again after missing the last two games through a groin strain. He would most naturally return in the left wing-back position in place of Joe Bryan in Fulham’s new-look system, although the England under-21 international has looked most at home in the Premier League in a more advanced position. He famously scored the first goal against Wolves at the Cottage last year as the Whites went on that 23-match unbeaten run to the end of the season. Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa will be missing until the New Year at least, which should allow Arsenal loanee Calum Chambers to continue his recent resurgence as a deep-lying midfielder.

Ranieri was raving in his pre-match press conference about Wolves’ storming performance against Liverpool last Friday where they were unfortunate to be beaten by Liverpool after giving Jurgen Klopp’s league leaders a real scare in the first half. Nuno Esporito Santo’s men started Premier League life like a runaway train, even taking the game to Manchester City in another accomplished performance against one of the league’s top sides. They came from behind to beat Chelsea and, despite picking up a single point from their last eighteen, will pose a serious threat this afternoon.

Santo’s side have continued to play the sort of ambitious and eye-catching football that characterised their romp to the Championship title last season – if anything, kicking on in these more rarefied surroundings. The mighty Willy Boly has been been a rock at the heart of the back three with Conor Coady, converted into a centre half by Santo last season, equally as impressive. Morgan Gibbs-White, a World Cup winner with Steven Sessegnon with the England under 20s last summer, has shown glimpses of his prodigious talent and the unheralded Raul Jimenez has proven a real livewire in the opposition penalty area,

Wolves are likely to be without Diego Jota, who has recently looked like he has found the answers to replicate his devastating skills in the Championship again in the top flight, but Fulham should be equally wary of Adama Traore, whose blistering pace caused such alarm at Middlesbrough last year. Traore posed real problems for the Liverpool defence at Molineux on Friday night and will be licking his lips at the prospect of taking on Fulham’s leaky defence.

MY FULHAM XI (3-4-2-1): Rico; Odoi, Mawson, Ream; Christie, R. Sessegnon, Chambers, Seri; Cairney, Schurrle, Mitrovic. Subs: Bettinelli, Le Marchand, McDonald, Johansen, Vietto, Ayite, Kamara.

Ranieri ‘happy’ with Fulham’s first clean sheet

Claudio Ranieri was delighted with the defensive application of his players after Fulham recorded their first clean sheet of the season in a goalless draw at Newcastle this afternoon.

The Italian boss had said earlier in the week that he ‘needed a clean sheet like I need pasta’ and his team responded after Ranieri employed three centre backs in a new system at St. James’ Park. The tactical switch was so successful that the home side did not manage a single shot on target. Ranieri was full of praise for his side’s effort during his post-match press conference:

I am happy. I am happy because we gave to them just one chance in the first half. In the second half they created some threat in our box, but they never shot at our goal. And in the second half we created four or five great chances to win the match. But the draw is okay for us with the first clean sheet and we must continue in this way.

The Fulham manager felt his side could have nicked a late victory, with Aleksandar Mitrovic and Aboubakar Kamara going close to putting the Whites ahead in the closing stages.

We played well the first half, [in] the second we lost possession of the ball but we created more chances. The second half was a battle, we knew it would be a physical match. We reacted very well, responded very well. The questions put to us, we answered very well, and also on the counter attack we created great chances.

One point is important, the clean sheet is important. And now I start to think about Wolverhampton because I watched their match last night and Wolverhampton played fantastically. For me it was very important to see how my defensive three react, and they reacted very well. It was good to see them keep possession, make some good actions. We’re at the bottom of the league, so we’re not so positive or with a lot of confidence, but I’m sure we’re getting better.

Ranieri rejected a reporter’s suggestion that the side bottom of the Premier League at Christmas usually gets relegated. Two of the last five teams propping up the table on Christmas day have survived – and Fulham’s point puts them level on points with Huddersfield. Ranieri remains confident his team can survive.

It’s not true. We’ll be safe at the end, don’t worry.

Hammers inflict more misery on rock-bottom Fulham

By the end of what proved to be a rather tame London derby, the mood of the Fulham faithful matched the miserable wintry weather at a drenched Craven Cottage. Claudio Ranieri’s side had blown their big chance to close the gap at the foot of the Premier League table, surrendering meekly after a bright start as West Ham claimed their fourth successive top flight win for the first time in almost five years.

Ranieri opted for an aggressive 4-4-2 as Fulham hoped to take advantage of beneficial results in the day’s earlier kick-offs to try and breathe some life into their battle against the drop. Aboubakar Kamara, paired with Aleksandar Mitrovic in a two-man attack after scoring in both of Fulham’s past two games, initially posed the Hammers defence serious problems with his physicality and pace. Had he found a finish to match when Mitrovic’s slide-rule pass sent him clean through on goal after nine minutes, it might have been a different story – but Lukasz Fabianski was able to easily palm away the French forward’s near-post effort.

Fulham had already signalled their intent with an early effort from range by Jean-Michael Seri that flew over the bar, but whilst their free-flowing football has created plenty of chances all season they have struggled to keep things tight at the other end. The Whites are still without a clean sheet in the league this campaign and West Ham’s first goal, which arrived against the run of play in the seventeenth minute, offered a clear of example of why. The opening goal actually came from a Fulham attack after Fabian Balbuena halted Mitrovic in his tracks and Denis Odoi needlessly went to ground inside of jockeying Felipe Anderson to the touchline. The Brazilian sauntered to the edge of the box and produced the perfect cut back which Robert Snodgrass leathered past a helpless Sergio Rico.

The home side continued to create chances. Joe Bryan’s deep cross almost caught West Ham out, but Mitrovic’s improvised diving header at the back post went into the side netting. Andre Schurrle scurried across goal with the ball at his feet, but with the crowd urging him to try one of his trademark long shots, the German elected to try and feed the ball through to Mitrovic and the West Ham defence crowded the Serbian out. Kamara headed straight at Fabianski when well placed, whilst the former Arsenal goalkeeper also did well to thwart Mitrovic’s deflected drive.

Against all the odds it was 2-0 before the half hour as Fulham criminally switched off at the back once again. Anderson, whose confidence had been buoyed by the part he had played in the Hammers’ opening goal, whipped in a dangerous cross from the left, which Javier Hernandez flicked into the path of the unattended Michail Antonio and the forward had the freedom of Hammersmith and Fulham to slot a second decisively between the legs of Rico. This was the kind of avoidable goal that sums up just why Fulham remain rooted to the bottom of the table, having conceded some 42 goals in just 17 games so far this season.

They rarely looked like mounting a comeback during a soporific second half. Cairney and half-time substitute Cyrus Christie fashioned an opening shortly after the break but Mitrovic was crowded out by a resolute West Ham defence, Issa Diop did brilliantly to clear a low cross from the Irish international underneath his own crossbar and the visitors were happy to see out time largely untroubled as Manuel Pellegrini’s men moved up to ninth in the table.

FULHAM (4-4-2): Rico; Odoi, Bryan, Mawson, Ream (Christie 45); Chambers, Seri (Johansen 61), Cairney, Schurrle (Kebano 77); Kamara, Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Cisse, Ayite, Vietto.

BOOKED: Seri, Johansen.

WEST HAM UNITED (4-4-2): Fabianski; Zabaleta, Masuaku, Balbuena, Diop; Rice, Noble (Obiang 62), Snodgrass, Anderson; Hernandez (Carroll 73), Antonio (Diangana 85). Subs (not used): Adrian, Cresswell, Ogbonna, Xande Silva.

BOOKED: Noble.

GOALS: Snodgrass (17), Antonio (29).

REFEREE: Mike Dean (Birkenhead).

ATTENDANCE: 24,081.