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Commanding victory gives Fulham a shot in the arm

There was a point over the weekend where even the most optimistic Fulham fan must have been starting to concede that the Whites were as good as relegated in February. Fulham’s survival hopes already depended on Scott Parker’s side knitting together the sort of winning run that comes more naturally to Champions’ League contenders but when Burnley run riot at Selhurst Park the gap between eighteenth place and safety felt like a chasm.

But Parker’s belief in his squad has never wavered. A novice manager, the Fulham boss has had to rebuild this side four times. Once, when the Whites were relegated well before the end of their last season in the Premier League and he had only been in the job for a few weeks. That required a dramatic shift in the mentality at Motspur Park – something Parker has referenced regularly throughout his tenure at Craven Cottage. There were the necessary alterations that came as a result of winning the play-off final that were made all the more dramatic by the pandemic and a shortened close season. More remodelling was required when Fulham’s defence was proven to be woefully short in the opening weeks of the season, including a switch in system to successfully accommodate new acquisitions and, most recently, the arrival of new attackers was designed to give the Whites more firepower in attack.

Then there was also a switch in Fulham’s approach. Such is the desperate nature of their position at the wrong end of the table that staying in games after becoming hard to beat – a hallmark of Parker’s time in charge – simply isn’t good enough. Wins are what will dig the Whites out of the mire and that demands a greater sense of adventure. What was most impressive about last night’s remarkable performance at Goodison Park was that it was achieved without anything remotely kamikaze but a majestic mastering of the fundamentals. Fulham have always been pretty in possession with alluring link-up play and they probed patiently in front of Everton for almost the entirety of the first half. It looked like the same old story, until Josh Maja added a bit of ruthlessness in the six-yard box.

This was probably Fulham’s most complete performance under Parker. They might have pulverised Millwall at a lower level, but the dominance of an Everton side with genuine aspirations of finishing above Liverpool was so complete as to be spellbinding. Assured with the ball at feet, confident in a gameplan that had clearly been meticulously planned, the tone for such a commanding display was set in central midfield where the magnificent Harrison Reed roamed imperiously, pirouetting in a manner reminiscent of his manager, and Mario Lemina worked to reduce both the space and ball allowed to Everton’s coterie of creative players. Such was their control in midfield that Fulham’s defenders barely had to cause to worry – it was their opponents who were making last-ditch blocks and hurried clearances.

Parker’s selections were spot on. Ola Aina offered energy and drive from left back, as well as most crucially, a telling final ball when he drove beyond the excellent Ademola Lookman, eager to prove a point on his return to Goodison Park, to get to the byline. The low cross has been strangely removed from Fulham’s football for much of the season but the delivery supplied for Maja’s opener was both simplistic and superb – the sort of service old-fashioned number nine’s thrive upon. Bobby Decordova-Reid buzzed around the fringes of the Everton penalty area with real intent, popping up all over the field with clever touches and passes as he has all year, whilst there were more encouraging signs from Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

There might have been a temptation to revert to the tried and tested ploy of playing Ivan Cavaleiro up front, which has worked to a degree against the stronger sides, but Parker’s faith in Maja was rewarded. It may be tempting to consider what might have happened had a striker with his skillset been available for the crunch matches at West Brom and Brighton last month – but it is already clear that he’s added plenty to Fulham’s previously toothless attack. There’s pace and power to worry defenders but also an intelligence about his movement that suggests he may flourish in the top flight.

Consider the way he snaffled both goals. They looked like simple finishes 4but they were made both by artful anticipation and clever runs. He darted away from Mason Holgate to find space behind a clutch of Everton defenders to slide home Aina’s low ball in and break the deadlock at a time when plenty of Fulham fans were wondering if the goal the performance merited would ever come. Maja’s desire was evident in the way the vital second came upon. He did brilliantly to hold up a hopeful ball forward and bring it under his spell before spreading the play smartly out wide. When Reed rifled in a shot from distance, Maja was on the move. The contrast between the striker and a static Everton backline when the ball bounced back off the post was instructive – and it left him with the easiest of finishes.

You could tell from the broad smiles in the post-match interviews that this victory will have done wonders for Fulham’s confidence. They will travel to Turf Moor, another place of pain for the Whites for far too long, will renewed belief for another high stakes encounter on Wednesday. It will be a very different contest – Sean Dyche’s side won’t allow their opponents anything like the freedom to pop the ball around that Fulham enjoyed against Everton – but there can be no doubting that this side are up for the fight. Another great escape doesn’t seem quite as fanciful now.

Proud Parker says Fulham can beat the drop

Scott Parker saluted Fulham’s fortitude after the Whites claimed a first-ever league win at Goodison Park – and insisted his side can avoid relegation from the Premier League.

The Londoners surprised high-flying Everton, outplaying Carlo Ancelotti’s side and fully deserving their victory on Merseyside – which came courtesy of a second-half brace from new signing Josh Maja. Parker told BT Sport that Fulham’s first win in twelve games certainly wasn’t a surprise to him:

“It has been coming, for sure. The difference is that we win the game by putting the ball in the net. People may be seeing that it turns but for the large part in the last 15 games we have been consistent. We were brilliant, superb in everything we did in defence and attack. I don’t think we deserved anything less to be honest.”

The Fulham boss had been working hard on helping his forwards convert chances in training after rueing a goalless draw with West Ham last weekend and was delighted that his side were finally more ruthless in the final third.

“Today it has been the difference. I constantly say to this team, you cannot keep creating the chances and that is a good marker to keep belief. We have been on the wrong side of fine margins but in and around the six yard box we have sniffed out chances and got a big win.”

Parker believes his side, who now move on to critical games against relegation rivals Burnley and Sheffield United, have more than enough to stay up – despite still being seven points from safety with fifteen games to play.

“That is how we go about our work. We have been drawing too many games and we need to be winning them. We now go into two massive games and onto the rest of the season. I have got full belief in this team, I honestly have.

“People judge performances on wins and losses, I have a different view because I see it everyday and have to be more rational looking at my team. It gives me constant belief. I know what we need to do and the players do too. We can’t control what is around us, we just need to go out and win football matches. If we do that I know it will be OK. They said our record here was not great but it is irrelevant to me and I am happy to get the win.”

Maja magic ends Fulham’s miserable Merseyside run

Fulham’s barren run on the blue half of Merseyside has been the subject of some mockery for much of the past half century. The Londoners had never won a league fixture at Goodison Park before this evening but Scott Parker’s side rediscovered the winning habit – after a twelve-match winless run – just in time to breathe new life into their survival hopes. Just as encouragingly, the missing predatory instinct was supplied by new signing Josh Maja, whose brace accurately reflected Fulham’s complete dominance over a below-par Everton.

Maja’s second spell at Fulham, for whom he enjoyed a brief period of goalscoring as a teenage member of the Motspur Park academy, began with an encouraging cameo off the bench against West Ham last weekend. Borrowed from Bordeaux for the remainder of the season, the powerful striker was handed a first senior start for the club after Aleksandar Mitrovic tested positive for coronavirus and he added pace and power up front from the outset. Fulham bossed the first half with a combination of pretty passing and incisive attacking, but Maja provided the ruthlessness in the final third that the visitors have been lacking all season.

The Lewisham-born striker slid at the far post to finish off a flowing move down the left flank and nudge the Whites ahead three minutes after the interval. Ex-Everton winger Ademola Lookman, lively on his return to Goodison Park, swapped smart passes with Ola Aina and the full back’s low cross was turned in on the stretch by Maja inside the six-yard box. With Fulham’s fragility at the back – and the fact that Parker’s side had lost eleven points from winning positions – you felt a second goal was necessary to secure an elusive win. It arrived when Harrison Reed, who had roamed across the field imperiously all evening, rattled the near post with a low drive from 20 yards and Maja, anticipating a rebound, followed up to finish from close range.

The three points were no less than Fulham deserved. They had attacked with purpose from the off, pressing an Everton side, who might have been feeling the after effects of the midweek Cup epic against Tottenham and sorely missed the injured Dominic Calvert-Lewin up front. Parker’s men pressed high from the outset but there was a verve and intensity about their passing and a desire to inflict some serious blows on Carlo Ancelotti’s high-fliers. Reed’s lovely floated ball released Ruben Loftus-Cheek, whose rather casual shot was too close to Robin Olsen, and a contentious offside flag might have been reversed.

The away side also showed a threat from set plays. Maja spooned over the bar at the far post having been surprised when Olsen flapped at a corner and Bobby Decordova-Reid’s improvised flick came back off the far post before Aina had a volley blocked. Loftus-Cheek’s low centre flashed across goal before Decordova-Reid fed Reed and the energetic midfielder drove fractionally wide of the far post with an instinctive drive from the edge of the box. Decordova-Reid and Lookman then somehow outfoxed three Everton defenders in the box before the latter’s miscued drive dribbled the wrong side of the near post.

Ancelotti had lined up with an abundance of artists in his starting line-up but the likes of Gylfi Sigurdsson, Richarlison and James Rodriguez didn’t get the ball in areas where they could hurt Fulham. Indeed, Everton’s only opening of the first half arrived courtesy of the energy of Seamus Coleman, who robbed Reed of possession on the half way and drove to the edge of the box before an optimistic left-footed strike from just outside the box glanced off the outside of the near post.

You sensed that the home side couldn’t possibly be as toothless in the second period, but Maja’s pair of poacher’s goal rendered any hopes of a home revival pretty redundant. Fulham could have had further goals – Lookman lofted high and over bar after a clever interchange with Loftus-Cheek and another devilish cross from Aina narrowly eluded Loftus-Cheek at the back post after Maja had cleverly dummied it.

The visitors held on their lead with a relish that Parker would have appreciated. The impish intelligence of Reed and Mario Lemina dominated the midfield with a real reassurance and held onto possession with composure and confidence, whilst Joachim Andersen and Tosin Adarabioyo headed high balls away all night long. Alphonse Areola was a virtual spectator until he fielded Sigurdsson’s speculative shot from outside the area after 76 minutes and when he was beaten by substitute Josh King late on, the offside flag came to Fulham’s rescue.

Parker spoke persuasively after the final whistle about the belief and character within his side. He has always insisted that Fulham were not dead and buried at the foot of the table and, with key clashes against Burnley, Sheffield United and Crystal Palace to come in the next couple of weeks, they have a real chance to prove everybody wrong and conjure up another great escape.

EVERTON (4-3-3): Olsen; Digne, Coleman (Keane 56), Holgate, Godfrey; Doucoure, Davies (King 56), Gomes; Rodriguez (Bernard 68), Sigurdsson, Richarlison. Subs (not used): Virgínia, Allan, Mina, Nkonkou, Onyango, Iwobi.

BOOKED: Keane.

FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Areola; Tete, Andersen, Adarabioyo, Aina; Reed, Lemina (Onomah 91); Decordova-Reid, Lookman (Anguissa 83), Loftus-Cheek, Maja (Cavaleiro 73). Subs (not used): Rodak, Hector, Ream, Odoi, Kongolo, Robinson.

BOOKED: Onomah.

GOALS: Maja (48, 65).

REFEREE: Andrew Madley (West Yorkshire).

VIDEO ASSISTANT REFEREE: Kevin Friend (Leicestershire).

How can Fulham win at Everton

The opportunities to record season-salvaging runs are starting to run out. No rational Fulham fan would tip the Whites to beat Everton on Sunday, firstly, because Carlo Ancelotti’s side are a formidable Premier League outfit when on form and secondly because success would be history making. The Whites haven’t won at Goodison Park in half a century and, with just two wins in the league all campaign, it would a significant turn up for the books. So, how can Scott Parker’s charges end their thirteen match winless run and spring a surprise on Sunday?

First of all, lets take a look at Ancelotti’s side. The knowledgeable and experienced Italian, who has made such an impact since taking over at Everton, likes to set his side up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, which transitions into a 4-3-3 when on the attack. Everton’s side is built upon a solid backline, with former Manchester United trainee Michael Keane usually partnered with Colombian international Yerry Mena, forming a physical and defensively sound centre back duo who are capable of passing the ball out from the back. On either side of them are Seamus Coleman and Lucas Digne, full-backs who are once again defensively solid but who also offer an attacking presence when going forward, providing a real threat from set plays and in crossing situations.

Ancelotti usually deploys two deep-lying midfielders in front of his back four, who are asked to win back possession and create opportunities from deep. Aboulaye Doucoure has become something of a permanent fixture since his move from Watford in the summer alongside either Tom Davies or Andre Gomes, who seem to rotate regularly. The classy and creative number ten is usually James Rodriguez, who still seems like a clever capture from Real Madrid and has posed problems for plenty of Premier League defences, but Ancelotti can also call upon Gylfi Sigurdssson if necessary.

Where Everton are now much more potent than in the past is in the final third. Richarlison offers a real threat venturing in from the left or operating alongside Dominic Calvert-Lewin, whose finishing has come on leaps and bounds under Ancelotti. Calvert-Lewin, who combines athleticism with excellent technique, is also a big threat in the air and Fulham don’t need to be reminded of Everton’s goal threat. In the reverse fixture at Craven Cottage, the Toffees scored classical counter-attacking goals but also found the net by simply passing their way through the Fulham midfield. Even if Scott Parker’s defence has improved since the start of the season, they will need to be at their very resilient best to come close to getting a result this weekend.

There is a twist in the tale as well. Calvert-Lewin was substituted during Everton’s epic FA Cup win over Spurs earlier this week with a suspected hamstring injury. The in-form forward is therefore unlikely to line up against the Whites this weekend. Step forward Josh King, the suspect of a very public tug of war between the two clubs on transfer deadline day before he opted to move to Merseyside. The stage is set for him to open his Everton account with the winner, isn’t it?

Countering Everton’s adventurous line-up and nullifying their wealth of talent is a serious challenge. Here’s how I think the Whites should line-up:

I would suggest that Parker reverts back to his 5-2-3 formation for this fixture, with the 4-2-3-1 system seemingly more suited to other upcoming fixtures such as Burnley, Sheffield United and Crystal Palace – which remain must-win matches if the Whites are to have any hope of avoiding the drop. Nobody could serious place Sunday’s game in that category, but Fulham will need to take something back to London with them and I believe that the five at the back is the best option as it eliminates a number of defensive vulnerabilities.

Fulham’s wing backs, well experienced in this formation by now, should be able to pin back Everton’s wingers – reducing the threat of the low crosses from which the Toffees scored twice at the Cottage. It would also help to prevent Everton’s wingers from being able to deliver any high balls into the box, meaning that any aerial vulnerability is limited. The three centre backs would also be able to outnumber any conventional Everton forwards, especially in Ancelotti’s preferred lone striker system. Deploying three centre backs should also help to cut out through balls from midfield, something Everton have thrived upon before.

Parker’s midfield pairing, which will likely be Anguissa alongside either Lemina or Reed, should also sit deep when defending, just in front of the central defenders. Ideally, this would prevent the Everton number ten, likely to be Rodriguez, from exploiting any space between the lines, inhibiting their creativity and cutting off the majority of the service to the centre forward. This should mean that Everton may have to resort to long shots, a riskier proposition that produces far less expected goals than shooting from within the 18-yard box.

Fulham should look to soak up the pressure and wait for Everton to make mistakes to win back the ball before counter-attacking with speed – a strategy that we have seen employed fairly successfully, especially when the Whites surprised Liverpool at the Cottage before Christmas. Whilst I have no magic fix for Fulham’s goal scoring problems, the recent return of Kenny Tete to the side should free up Decordova-Reid to once again become an attacking asset to the side, rather than one placed into a defensive role.

Another question is that is it time for Josh Maja to start? Nobody outside of Parker’s coaching staff can know just how well the new signing has progressed in training and if he is ready to start yet, it is surely worth the punt. Maja provides the pace that Cavaleiro does up top, whilst he should hopefully also be able to convert the chances that he is given, as a natural striker. Besides, even if it does go wrong, there is always the option of bringing a replacement off of the bench and giving Maja some more time to settle in.

Fulham must start winning games. I appreciate that Everton may seem a big task due to their quality. However, the performance against the Hammers, who are in better form and in a higher league position than the Toffees, shows that Fulham are capable but simply missing the final product. Time is running out for Fulham to really mount their survival challenge, with just 15 Premier League games remaining. Could a first win in 53 years at Goodison, and 13 Premier League games, kickstart the push for survival – similar to how Maja’s goal against Fulham in 2018/19 put the fire in the team’s belly to go 23 undefeated to earn a play off place? Could it be fate that a Josh Maja goal kickstarts a Fulham survival push?

How do you think that Fulham should line up at Goodison on Sunday?

Everton edge five-goal thriller

An afternoon in the glorious Craven Cottage sunshine had all the ingredients of Fulham’s fabulously unorthodox Premier League campaign. There was plenty of disastrous defending, another comically missed penalty and a stirring fightback that saw Scott Parker’s side claw their way back towards salvation but fall frustratingly short. Everton, who looked ominously in control at half-time, were left hanging on to the narrowest of leads but escaped the capital having arrested their own alarming run of reverses.

Parker’s decision to omit Aleksandar Mitrovic and Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa from his starting line-up raised a few eyebrows. Without the Serbian up front, Fulham lack a natural goalscorer whilst Anguissa’s tenacity in midfield was sorely missed in a first half that saw Carlo Ancelotti’s men stroll into a comfortable advantage. The hosts were the architects of their own downfall inside the first minute when Toison Adarabioyo attempted an ill-advised switch of play from the edge of his own box. Ola Aina’s header was seized upon by Lucas Digne and Richarlison, restored to the starting line-up after suspension, sped to the by-line before his cut back allowed Dominic Calvert-Lewin the simplest of finishes after a couple of deflections.

Everton’s enterprise – and a switch to a back three – simply overwhelmed Fulham, who were slow to settle and could have gone further behind as Richarlison and Alex Iwobi, who enjoyed an excellent outing as an adventurous right wing-back, roamed with intent. When the Whites did recover some of their poise they exploited space chiefly down their left flank with ex-Everton academy graduate Antonee Robinson to the fore. The American international made a chance that Bobby Decordova-Reid should have done better than to snatch at, but the Jamaican forward took his next opportunity far more impressively, shooting clinically past Jordan Pickford after a lovely one-two with Tom Cairney saw him glide past Yerry Mina.

The visitors still looked ropey at the back, but there were irrepressible going forward. Calvert-Lewin was denied a second by an offside flag but that merely postponed the inevitable. Iwobi injected pace and purpose into the Everton attack, surging past two challengers down the right, and making the space for his opposite wing-back Digne to dart dangerously down the left again. The French defender produced a fabulous first-time cross and Calvert-Lewin gobbled up his tenth league goal of the campaign.

Alphone Areola did his best to keep Fulham in the contest – making a couple of excellent saves from Calvert-Lewin and then pulling off a magnificent stop to keep out Richarlison after the Brazilian had robbed Maria Lemina in midfield and strode into the penalty area – but the game looked beyond the home side after Rodriguez’s gorgeous pass freed Digne down the left again. Another excellent delivery found Abdoulaye Doucoure, criminally unmarked in the middle of the penalty area, who restored Everton’s two-goal cushion with a clinical header.

Parker kept faith with his starting eleven after the break but there was little sign of a revival. Cairney looked the most likely to unlock the Everton defence, having a shot blocked by Godfrey, so it was something of surprise to see him sacrificed as a part of a double change that introduced Mitrovic and Ruben Loftus-Cheek. The switch had an almost immediate effect when the Chelsea loanee was clumsily felled in the box by Godfrey, only for Cavaleiro to spoon the spot-kick over the bar – slipping as he stepped up to strike it.

That setback would have finished off plenty of struggling sides but Parker’s charges weren’t about it to give it up just yet. A minute later Ademola Lookman burst into the box and fed Loftus-Cheek, whose shot looped into the net off Mina to spark hopes of a Fulham revival. Ancelotti sent on Tom Davies and Gylfi Sigurdsson to try and secure Everton’s slender lead and, even though they retreated deep into their own half for much of the remaining twenty minutes, Fulham failed to fashion a clear-cut chance in a futile search for an equaliser.

FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Areola, Aina, Robinson, Andersen, Adarabioyo; Reed, Lemina (Anguissa 69); Cavaleiro, Lookman, Cairney (Mitrovic 58); Decordova-Reid (Loftus-Cheek 58). Subs (not used): Rodak, Ream, Odoi, Bryan.

BOOKED: Decordova-Reid, Robinson.

GOALS: Decordova-Reid (15), Loftus-Cheek (70).

EVERTON (3-4-3): Pickford; Godfrey, Mina, Keane; Digne, Iwobi, Allan, Doucoure; Rodriguez (Davies 74), Richarlison (Sigurdsson 76), Calvert-Lewin. Subs (not used): Olsen, Holgate, Bernard, Gomes, Tosun.

GOALS: Calvert-Lewin (1, 29), Doucoure (35).

REFEREE: Andy Madley (West Yorkshire).

VIDEO ASSISTANT REFEREE: Lee Mason (Lancashire).