Even if there was statistical evidence that Brighton were there for the taking, Fulham has time and again failed to deliver so much, you genuinely didn’t need Tony Kahn to care so much less on proof in the numbers. But somehow, the boys ran rampant on a Brighton side that looked so sluggish at the back and had so little to do in attack once everyone besides Glenn Murray went back into their shell. But boy did a night like last night’s at Craven Cottage had the potential to be so grim.
At first, it looked like Fulham were actually on the front foot for a change thanks to a solid run by André Schürrle followed by a set piece shot by Maxime Le Marchand within the first couple of minutes. All of a sudden, Glenn Murray did Glenn Murray things. But really, it was both Ryan Babel and Joe Bryan not putting a stop to Marin Montoya’s run that led to a picture perfect cross to the big man to give Brighton on the lead from the start.
Fulham tried to do their best to create something in attack. After all, Brighton came into tonight’s contest with just 43.1% possession throughout the entire season. But besides a few blocked shots and a couple of throughballs and crosses that just couldn’t connect, Claudio Ranieri’s team just didn’t offer much. Surely enough, Brighton took advantage of another Fulham mistake thanks to a whipping cross by Pascal Groß. After a Le Marchand deflection, the ball came towards Davy Pröpper who tried to volley it home via bicycle kick. Fortunately, the ball came on the feet of Murray who stayed onside by Cyrus Christie for no reason at all to make it 2-0.
Claudio Ranieri was getting soaked in a cold and snowy night in West London and only 22,000 turned up to Craven Cottage for a proper game of Premier League football. Again, Fulham tried to push on, especially when Ranieri substituted Tim Ream for Tom Cairney because Brighton were sitting so far deep that Fulham had to get another game breaker in there to take advantage. The highlight after the second goal was a Babel shot from distance that had to be palmed away by Matt Ryan. But again, Brighton were waiting to put the final nail in the coffin, and they almost did so with Murray almost catching another Groß cross (but by set piece this time around) only for Sergio Rico to be able to palm it away from point blank range.
Fulham had a chance of their own when a Babel cross perfectly met Schürrle’s right foot at the far post, only for Shane Duffy to clear the ball off the line. Then once again, strong hold-up play by Murray led to a thundering shot just outside the box by Pröpper rattled the bar that could be heard all the way down the south coast. Lastly, Murray almost completed his hat trick if he was able to be more accurate with his touch off of a ball by Jürgen Locadia.
By the halftime whistle, the home support couldn’t wait to boo the players and coaching staff off the pitch. In spite of Fulham dominating possession and trying to make some form of an effort, their creativity once again lacked any spark and were punished with a 6-8 shot disadvantage as well as a 0.49-2.00 expected goals disadvantage. Once again, Ranieri had to make a change and do it fast.
That is what he did as Luciano Vietto came in for Schurrle, who just bluntly isn’t match fit to play a full 90 minutes of top tier European football anymore. Immediately, Fulham played so much quicker with the ball as they transitioned into a 4-2-3-1. After a mad scramble off of a corner kick, Christie returned the ball into the box towards Aleksander Mitrovic. Even if he didn’t win the aerial duel against Shane Duffy, the ball went straight to Calum Chambers who was able to calmly volley it home and cut the deficit in half.
Brighton did have a few counter-attacking moves afterwards, but Fulham were hounding the tar out of Brighton’s backline, especially their fullbacks who would never see the same exact time and space the rest of the night. Eleven minutes later, Fulham almost took the lead off of some beautiful interplay that almost led to Luciano Vietto’s first ever goal (more on that later), but was just deflected at the last minute. Next, another Jean Michael Seri corner found the feet of Babel outside the penalty area and even though his cross was deflected, no one knew how to go after the ball except for one man. That’s right my friend’s: Mitro got on fire and he got his brace by outmuscling both Ryan and Duffy inside the six-yard box to tie this contest before you know it.
But we’re not done yet. In the 66th minute, Fulham almost took the lead if not for a horrible miss-kick by Vietto and a well placed shot by Seri that hit the post. Brighton could have tied it by a powerful header by Murray to complete his hat trick, but Rico was up to the task to make the save that could have salvaged Fulham’s season, let alone this contest. Minutes later, a foul wasn’t given towards Chambers on a shove on Groß which led to a some interplay between Babel and Bryan. Before you know it, Bryan’s cross found a jumping Mitrovic that made it 3-2 and sent the Cottage into delirium. Lewis Dunk strongly argued that the big Serbian went on his shoulders to go after the ball, but those calls are up there with pass interference in American Football and blocking/offensive fouls in basketball in terms of decisions that no one in the human race has a clue how to officiate correctly. Besides, explain to me why Dale Stephens wasn’t sent off on his studs up challenge on Schurrle’s leg back in the first half?!?!
In the long run, it would be devastating to see Bryan missing playing time due to another injury as he was replaced by Ryan Sessegnon later on. Brighton always had that counter-attacking threat that gave them the lead early on, but there was either no end product or complete resilience by Fulham’s defense in the second half. Surely enough, Cairney was given all the time in the world by Gaetan Bong to put in a trademark strike off of his left foot that rattled the bar. After that, Babel was able to collect the rebound and a miss-kick was able to find the head of Vietto to make it four. Everyone wearing white couldn’t wait to hug the Argentinian who was in the middle of a goal drought that lasted over nine months!
Cairney almost made it five but another trademark left foot had a bit more power but not much better accuracy. Outside of a bit more huffing and puffing from Brighton with no end product and some tricks by Babel, Seri and Cairney, that was all she wrote. And my goodness was that a brilliant victory! As much as that was such a vital three points to savor, Fulham have to turn around and claim another three points against Crystal Palace, who have a six-pointer themselves against Southampton. Fulham’s away record has been historically bad, but only true relegation survivalists find a way to turn that around. Going back to the 4-2-3-1 and seeing Cairney and Seri work together so well has to be a welcoming sign and it is a formation that Ranieri has to consider for them to springboard their attack again. Otherwise, this victory comes for naught again.