There are greater rewards for Fulham than a trip to Bramall Lane 11 days from now. They have earned that, and may even win it too, after their very comfortable replay defeat of Norwich City. But Rene Meulensteen and Ray Wilkins will take further pleasures than that. A first clean sheet in eight games, the return of captain Brede Hangeland, and some enterprising attacking football which made three well-worked goals.
This might not be precisley the team that Meulensteen takes to Arsenal on Saturday but there should be far more confidence than there was when their last result was a 4-1 home defeat to Sunderland. In a tight, tense relegation battle, belief cannot be undervalued.
“Nothing positive comes out of losing,” said Meulensteen, delighted with the result, “so you should always try to go out and get the best possible result.”
That is the impression Fulham gave on the pitch even though they made nine changes from their weekend team - and Norwich City six. But the Fulham team had not obviously been weakened - because of how bad they had were on Saturday, and also because of the calibre and experience of players coming in.
In pictures: FA Cup round-up
In pictures: FA Cup round-up
1/10 FA Cup round-up
Players from non-league Kidderminster Harriers celebrate victory over League One side Peterborough United
2/10 FA Cup round-up
Watford manager Giuseppe Sannino gives Marco Davide Faraoni a cheeky pat on the backside following their team's 2-0 victory over Bristol City
3/10 FA Cup round-up
Paul Robinson scored a rare goal as Birmingham beat Bristol Rovers 3-0
4/10 FA Cup round-up
Macclesfield Town's Scott Boden scored from the penalty spot to equalise against Sheffield Wednesday but the non-league side eventually fell to a 4-1 defeat
5/10 FA Cup round-up
Preston's Lee Holmes jumps on the back of hat-trick hero Joe Garner. The Lilywhites beat Ipswich 3-2.
6/10 FA Cup round-up
Port Vale keeper Chris Neal protests Plymouth Argyle's opening goal scored by Andres Gurrieri. Vale eventually turned the tide, winning 3-2.
7/10 FA Cup round-up
Scott Davies of Oxford United celebrates his goal which gave his side a 2-0 lead, which was eventually clawed back by Charlton, forcing a replay
8/10 FA Cup round-up
Jimmy Phillips equalised for Burton before Bournemouth ran out 4-1 winners
9/10 FA Cup round-up
Wigan manager Uwe Rosler celebrates with Marc-Antoine Fortune of Wigan following their team's 3-1 victory over MK Dons
10/10 FA Cup round-up
Steve Sidwell heads in Fulham's third as The Cottagers knocked out Norwich City, winning 3-0
There was Darren Bent, who put Fulham ahead in the first half, Giorgios Karagounis, who was excellent throughout, Maarten Stekelenburg in goal but most importantly of all captain and defensive lynch-pin Hangeland.
During the 10 weeks of Hangeland's glaring absence, Fulham conceded 41 goals in 15 games and looked certain to go down. But tonight he was back, alongside 21-year-old Dan Burn at centre-back, and Fulham kept their first clean sheet since 10 December last year.
“My biggest thing was the clean sheet,” Meulensteen said. “I keep saying, if we are getting clean sheets on board we will climb up the table because we have the quality to create chances.”
The return of Hangeland was crucial to that. “It was a big, big boost, he has done ever so well after surgery, trained very hard, and it was great to see him come through the 90 minutes very well.”
That new-found control at the back was briefly under threat, when Robert Snodgrass hit the bar after three minutes, but beyond that Fulham were very comfortable. They were sufficiently enterprising to create and eventually take chances. Steve Sidwell and Pajtim Kasami had long-term efforts saved before Darren Bent put them ahead.
Sascha Riether put Kasami in down the right, and he was too quick for Javi Garrido. Ashkan Dejagah dummied Kasami's cross and it fell to Bent, who showed that there are still few sharper than him at finishing in the box, easily beating Mark Bunn into the near bottom corner.
That was a smart move but the second was even better. Norwich were trying to push out but Karagounis and Kacaniklic's timing was perfect, the winger springing the high advancing line and darting into the inside right-channel. He crossed briskly and square to Dejagah, in space behind the defence, and the finish was simple.
Chris Hughton was not impressed. “Certainly the first two goals could have been avoided, they were poor goals to concede,” he said. “It was not a question of heads dropping, it's a team not defending well enough. If that's the case you need to be scoring goals.”
Norwich's attacking threat was limited, though it did improve very slightly with Ricky van Wolfswinkel at the start of the second half. Within four minutes he had a shot charged down by Hangeland and there was, in relative terms, more threat and presence for the visitors.
It was a welcome change, for at least briefly restoring some competitiveness to a game which Fulham were coasting. But Norwich needed to take a chance and when the best one came along, Sebastian Bassong could only head straight at Maarten Stekelenburg.
The next good headed chance came at the other end, and won Fulham the game. Kasami held off two defenders and rolled the ball out to Riether, whose first-time cross was perfect. Sidwell, charging in at the far post, was too strong for Russell Martin and the finish was emphatic.
Luciano Becchio came on for a rare substitute appearance, while Fulham threw on youngsters Moussa Dembele, Lasse Vigen Christensen and Muamer Tankovic.
But both teams, by the final 20 minutes, were conserving energy for their more important league games on Saturday. Fulham's trip to Arsenal will be harder, but by the same token, Norwich's home game against Hull City will be more important.
Fulham (4-2-3-1): Stekelenburg; Riether, Hangeland, Burn, Richardson; Sidwell (Christensen, 84), Karagounis; Dejagah, Kasami, Kacaniklic (Tankovic, 87); Bent (Dembélé, 79).
Norwich City (4-2-3-1): Bunn; Whittaker, Martin, Bassong, Garrido; Fox, Johnson; Redmond (Van Wolfswinkel, 45), Snodgrass, Josh Murphy; Elmander (Becchio, 69).
Referee Lee Mason.
Revised FA Cup fourth round draw
Friday 24 January
Arsenal v Coventry; Nottingham Forest v Preston
Saturday 25 January
Bournemouth v Liverpool, Bolton v Cardiff, Sunderland v Kidderminster, Southampton v Yeovil, Southend v Hull, Rochdale v Sheffield Wednesday, Wigan v Crystal Palace, Blackburn/Man City v Watford, Birmingham v Swansea, Huddersfield v Charlton/Oxford, Port Vale v Brighton, Stevenage v Everton
Sunday 26 January
Sheffield United v Fulham, Chelsea v Stoke
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