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Feeble Fulham fold to Newcastle

Lacklustre Fulham bookended their miserable stay in the Premier League with a 10th home defeat of the season.

The relegated Whites simply couldn’t replicate some of the encouraging performances of recent weeks, and four goals from the mid-table Magpies by Jonjo Shelvey, Ayoze Perez, Fabian Schar and Salomon Rondon were more than sufficient to take the points back to Tyneside.

It was an afternoon with plenty to consider for the home fans.

With the Cottagers already preparing for life in the Championship, this final game of their campaign may also represent the climax for Aleksandar Mitrovic, captain Tom Cairney and Ryan Sessegnon in Fulham colours.

The game had barely settled into a rhythm after the home fans had afforded warm applause for Scott Parker – named the Whites new permanent manager this week – before the Magpies swooped to serve up two clinically-taken goals.

In the ninth minute, Shelvey crashed a perfect 18 yard volley into the top corner of the net when the midfielder was unmarked and lurking in wait for Matt Ritchie’s corner.

Not even in-form Fulham keeper Sergio Rico could thwart a shot of such searing quality.

Fulham were still reeling when Rafa Benitez’s men doubled their lead two minutes later.

After some good work by Christian Atsu driving forward, the midfielder’s shot was only parried by Rico into the path of Perez, who scrambled the ball home.

The hosts’ best response when it eventually came, was a shot from 20 yards by Floyd Ayite which sailed inches over.

Parker’s side managed to keep composed in their attempts to undo the damage but Mitrovic in particular was finding it difficult to break down his former club to cause any threat.

At the other end, Salomon Rondon could have made it three but the unmarked forward dragged his shot wide from a Perez pass.

The Whites asserted themselves at the start of the second half and put the Magpies under considerable pressure.

But again, they were caught eventually, conceding the kind of goal which has consigned Parker’s men to relegation.

Schar had the easiest of tasks to head home from close range from Ritchie’s corner on the hour.

Fulham sent on Ryan Babel – another high-profile player poised to leave – for Cyrus Christie in the aftermath.

However, the task was already beyond the west Londoners.

Other than a shot from teenage substitute Harvey Elliott which was well saved by Martin Dubravka, the struggle to open up more confident, aggressive opponents was again glaringly obvious.

Dishevelled Fulham’s suffering was complete when Rondon swept home on the break in the closing moments, after the forward’s initial shot was well stopped by the exposed Rico.

A new season in the Championship allied to summer squad rebuilding for Parker awaits.

FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Rico, Christie (Babel 65), Mawson, Le Marchand, Bryan; Chambers, Anguissa; Ayite (Elliott 74), Cairney, R. Sessegnon (Kebano 81); Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Fabri, Ream, S. Sessegnon, de la Torre

BOOKED: Bryan.

NEWCASTLE UNITED (4-4-2): Dubravka; Hayden (F Fernandez 69), Schar, Lascelles, Dummett (Kenedy 81); Ritchie, A Perez, Shelvey, Diame; Atsu (Muto 66), Rondon. Subs (not used): Darlow, Clark, Cass, Watts

GOALS: Shelvey (9), Perez (11), Schar (61), Rondon (90).

REFEREE: Kevin Friend (Leicestershire).

ATTENDANCE: 24,979.

Babel’s brilliance beats Cardiff

Ryan Babel’s sensational second-half strike left Cardiff facing an uphill task for Premier League safety following their 1-0 defeat at Fulham.

Babel struck a first-time curling effort from 25 yards which gave Neil Etheridge no chance to settle a game of little quality at Craven Cottage.

The Dutchman’s moment of magic proved a rare bright spark for either side, with Cardiff lacking the intensity expected from Neil Warnock’s side, who badly needed a win to keep themselves on Brighton’s tail, and an eight-minute, first-half stoppage after Denis Odoi was knocked unconscious did little to aid the tempo.

However, having failed to force a save of note out of Fulham goalkeeper Sergio Rico until the final five minutes, when Sean Morrison and Danny Ward both went close, they are now four points adrift of safety with two games remaining after Brighton drew 1-1 with Newcastle, and realistically needing to win both of their final two games against Crystal Palace and Manchester United.

With Fulham enjoying fine wins over Everton and Bournemouth in their last two outings and Cardiff desperate for three points, the scrappy, slow first half which developed may have surprised both benches.

It took 12 minutes for either ‘keeper to make a save, when Aleksandar Mitrovic’s 20-yard shot on the turn was kept out at full-stretch by Etheridge.

Odoi was hurt when Maxime Le Marchand’s boot struck him in the chest and knocked him clean out midway through the first half, with the defender carried from the pitch with his neck in a support following a lengthy stoppage, after which Fulham continued on the front foot.

Whatever words Warnock had for his players at half-time did little to knock some life into them, with Rico a passenger before the break and similarly untroubled once the second half got under way.

Four minutes into the second 45, Mitrovic should have scored when Tom Cairney, cutting in from the right, showed excellent composure to pick him out unmarked, but the striker turned his low pass well over from 15 yards.

The game continued with the same attritional approach from before the break, until 11 minutes from time when Babel stepped up to finally inject some quality.

Cyrus Christie made a superb 40-yard run out of defence and laid the ball back for the Dutchman, who curled a shot from the right channel away from Etheridge and into the far corner.

Late on Morrison and Ward both turned crosses goalwards but made life too easy for Rico, who saved both comfortably, and he was again able to hold on to the ball when Morrison nodded a glorious chance straight into his hands in the final seconds.

Fulham down after Watford thumping

Fulham have been relegated from the Premier League with five games still to play after being hammered by Watford at Vicarage Road.

The Cottagers needed to avoid defeat to put off their inevitable demotion for another week and were level at half-time, Ryan Babel having equalised after Abdoulaye Doucoure’s stunning opener for the Hornets.

However, second-half goals from Will Hughes, Troy Deeney and Kiko Femenia condemned them to an immediate return to the Championship.

Fulham spent more than £100m on 12 new players last summer but the quality has been lacking all season.

Their players looked dejected as the final whistle confirmed they will be playing Championship football alongside Huddersfield next season, making 2 April the earliest date two clubs have been relegated from the Premier League.

Fulham had, briefly, looked like delaying the drop, when Babel rounded Ben Foster to coolly equalise from Ryan Sessegnon’s clever pass 12 minutes before half-time.

Babel, Sessegnon and Aleksandar Mitrovic all had chances to put the Cottagers ahead in a dangerous spell after that but the break halted their momentum and they fell apart in the second half.

Parker will hope that they can restore pride in their final five games before another hard season in the Championship.

Second-half substitute Andre Gray has tormented Fulham in the past and once again he proved the difference, his bristling pace and direct running causing huge problems for the visitors’ fragile backline.

A mesmerising piece of skill from Gray set up Deeney for a tap in on 69 minutes before he slipped a pass to Femenia to round off the victory shortly afterwards.

Those goals put the gloss on two earlier strikes from Doucoure and Hughes, the latter a thunderbolt volley from the edge of the box that flew into the top of Sergio Rico’s net.

Watford have not lost at home since Boxing Day and, with six games to play, will have their sights set on finishing as best of the rest behind the runaway top six.

Fulham fall to defeat at Leicester

Fulham were pushed closer to relegation as Jamie Vardy reached a century of goals for the Foxes and Brendan Rodgers secured his first win as Leicester City manager.

Vardy was the key figure throughout, unselfishly setting up a simple first-half finish for Youri Tielemans before rising to the occasion after substitute Floyd Ayite’s scrappy equaliser for the Cottagers after the break.

He raced on to James Maddison’s perfect through ball to put Leicester back in front with 12 minutes left, then got his 100th goal for the club when he turned a finish past Sergio Rico after 86 minutes.

Fulham, under the interim management of Scott Parker, had no answer and this is a defeat that leaves them cut adrift from safety and surely on their way back into the Championship after just one season in the top flight.

Fulham’s fate is surely sealed after this latest defeat – 13 points from safety and 11 behind Cardiff City above them after the Bluebirds’ home win over West Ham.

And performances like that produced in the first half on Saturday are why they are where they are – players strolling around without any urgency, seemingly oblivious to the seriousness of their position.

yite’s equaliser prompted a show of fight, but in the end cheap goals were conceded and relegation is the price they will pay.

This cannot be put at Parker’s door.

The damage was done in a summer of scattergun recruitment, then poor results under Slavisa Jokanovic and Claudio Ranieri.

It is now merely a question of when their return to the Championship is confirmed – and then it is a question of whether Parker is given the full-time task of rediscovering a club who have lost their way.

Vardy’s relationship with Claude Puel was always a bone of contention before the Frenchman’s sacking – but he has demonstrated his continued importance in the first two games of the Rodgers era.

Here, and indeed when he scored in Rodgers’ first game at Watford, Vardy has made the sort of impact that means he will figure prominently as the new manager formulates his early plans.

Another stylish performer was Belgium midfielder Youri Tielemans, on loan from Monaco, and he is the sort of player Rodgers relishes having.

The 21-year-old ran the show in the first half, not just scoring a relatively simple goal but demonstrating the sort of vision that will make him a hot property whether he stays at Leicester or not.

LEICESTER CITY (4-3-3): Schmeichel; Pereira, Evans, Maguire, Chilwell; Tielemans (Ghezzal 72), Ndidi, Gray (Okazaki 72); Maddison (Mendy 81), Barnes, Vardy. Subs (not used): Ward, Morgan, Fuchs, Iheanacho.

GOALS: Tielemans (21), Vardy (78, 86).

FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Rico; Odoi, Bryan, Nordtveit, Ream; McDonald (Vietto 82), Chambers; Babel (Seri 67), R. Sessegnon (Ayite 45), Cairney; Mitrovic. Subs (not used):  Fabri, Le Marchand, Christie, Anguissa.

BOOKED: Babel, Bryan.

GOAL: Ayite (51).

REFEREE: David Coote (Northamptonshire).

ATTENDANCE: 32,017.

Fulham’s fabulous fightback restores belief

I don’t mind admitting that I was flagging a bit last night. The monotony of the Premier League was beginning to wear me down. It has been something of a traumatic season. The loss of Slavisa Jokanovic was keenly felt because of the identity and sumptuous football that he got Fulham playing and, of course, the magical run towards the end of the season and an unforgettable day out at Wembley. The realisation that this squad was plucky and determined rather than properly equipped to be competitive at this level meant that grim gallows humour has been the order of the day for a few weeks now.

It was no surprise that the gut-wrenching defeat by Spurs was followed by the quick concession of a couple of goals to Glenn Murray last night. Whatever Claudio Ranieri does – and the defence has become a lot better since he took charge – our back line seems keep on making damaging mistakes. Murray could have had a first-half hat-trick and it wasn’t as if Brighton played us off the park or he was making magnificent runs. The basics of getting goalside and shutting down crosses from the flanks are honed at a young level: it is as our defenders have forgotten everything they have been taught.

The comeback was as glorious as the weather was icy. There was simply no inkling of it coming. Jean-Michael Seri has had his detractors since that summer move from Nice but he was outstanding in the middle of the field. Some of the one-touch stuff Fulham played in the second half was reminiscent of that Jokanovic side at its silky best. I am still firmly of the belief that our best side includes Tom Cairney, whose cameo on the right side of midfield injected some class into proceedings, but whether Ranieri will be willing to jettison his back five to fit Fulham’s two best passers into the team remains to be seen.

It does give Fulham’s previously rather forlorn fight against the drop a real shot in the arm. There’s no question that Aleksandar Mitrovic is one of the best strikers in the division and it is clear that he relishes a scrap. His first goal last night was a throwback to goals strikers snaffled in the 1940s and 1950s and the second was a great illustration of his desire and aerial ability as he beat Mat Ryan when Lewis Dunk was blatantly backing into him. He clearly has a great understanding with Ryan Babel, who continues to look a smart acquisition, and Luciano Vietto built on an encouraging cameo at Brighton with probably his most complete display in a Fulham shirt.

I do hope there is a change of emphasis in Ranieri’s strategy going forward. It is clear that he is the archetypal Italian coach who wants his teams to be cautious and hard to beat, but barring a phalanx of defenders arriving at Motspur Park in the closing days of the transfer window, I don’t think this Fulham squad has the personnel to play the way he would like. Instead, we are packed with ball-players and attacking talent – the route to safety could well be found by allowing our artisans to express themselves.

The last time the Whites came back from 2-0 down to win a Premier League fixture was that incredible revival against Manchester City that sparked the Great Escape under Roy Hodgson. Last night, reminded me a bit more of that feverish fightback against Tottenham at Loftus Road capped by Sylvain Legwinski’s injury-time winner. Momentum is vital in a relegation run-in – we can’t afford to waste ours now.