If Fulham end up being relegated this season, Scott Parker may well look back at this match as the one that got away. Another strong performance that stretched their unbeaten run to five matches and moved them another point closer to potential safety should really have resulted in Parker’s side claiming a crucial victory had it not been for some wasteful finishing.
Yet this Crystal Palace team is, like their manager, nothing but obdurate and another masterful display of team organisation means an eighth successive season in the Premier League is almost assured already. “We showed a real desire not to lose,” said Roy Hodgson.
The 73-year-old had joked beforehand that Fulham will need to find space for a statue of Parker at Craven Cottage if he was to achieve the impossible and keep them up. But having looked doomed a few weeks ago, Fulham’s improvement under their 40-year-old manager has suddenly given supporters genuine hope that they could pull off a similar escape to the one Hodgson and his assistant Ray Lewington masterminded in 2008.
Key to their progress has been fixing one of the division’s leakiest defences, with only Manchester City having conceded less goals since mid-December thanks in large part to the performances of the captain, Joachim Andersen. The Denmark international – who is on a season-long loan from Lyon – made his first appearance for Fulham a week after their meek home defeat to Palace at the end of October and has emerged a real leader of this young side.
Given what was at stake, it was no surprise to see the visitors on the front foot from the first whistle, with Palace happy to reprise the role they played in the smash and grab victory over bitter rivals Brighton on Monday and allow their opponents to dominate possession. With Wilfried Zaha still not fit enough to feature despite returning to training this week, Christian Benteke was recalled after his late wonder goal but found touches of the ball hard to come by as Fulham dominated possession without creating anything of note.
The Belgium striker’s first sight of goal came in the 27th minute when a cross from Andros Townsend just eluded him after a sliced clearance from Andersen that was gratefully collected by the Fulham goalkeeper, Alphonse Areola. Two Andersen headers from Ademola Lookman’s precise set-piece deliveries that sailed well off target were at least signals of intent from Fulham as half-time approached, although the defender probably should have done better with both.
Parker’s experiment with Ola Aina at left-back proved short-lived as Antonee Robinson replaced him at the break and immediately gave Fulham’s formation better balance. Lookman – who was wanted by Palace when he was at Charlton but eventually opted to join Everton instead – looked particularly lively and almost created the breakthrough with another excellent free-kick, only for Tosin Adarabioyo to head straight at visiting goalkeeper Vicente Guaita.
Such is Andersen’s status in this side that when Ruben Loftus-Cheek was scythed down 30 yards out by Luka Milivojevic, it was the defender who stepped up to strike the free-kick just a couple of yards wide. Palace’s best chance of scoring also seemed to be from a set piece and Cheikhou Kouyaté was close to meeting Townsend’s dangerous free-kick before Josh Maja’s effort at the other end went just wide of Guaita’s post following a delightful flick from Loftus-Cheek.
Ivan Cavaleiro’s first involvement after coming off the bench was to pick out Maja – another former Palace transfer target – inside the six-yard box but somehow Guaita was equal to his header. Gary Cahill was next to come to Palace’s rescue when the former England defender threw himself in front of Andersen’s shot from close range following a corner.
It felt like only a matter of time until Fulham finally scored and the arrival of Aleksandar Mitrovic from the bench with 17 minutes still remaining meant Parker had put everything on the table. Lookman and Maja were both guilty of missing chances late on but they were forced to settle for a share of the spoils instead. How costly that will be remains to be seen but with fixtures against Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester City up next, things certainly won’t get any easier. “Momentum is certainly with us and we have shown we can compete against any team in this division,” said Parker.