Saha puts shine on polished Fulham performance

Fulham 2 Sunderland 0
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The Independent Online

After 33 years during which they were forced to look into the abyss of non-League football and face the living death of homelessness, Fulham were last night able to celebrate their first victory in the promised land of the Premiership.

Showing patience and polish they proved their thrilling debut at Old Trafford on Sunday was no fluke. Not, however, that they were able to do so without a helping hand, or rather, foot.

It belonged to Thomas Sorensen, the Sunderland goalkeeper whose 70th-minute error, the latest of a blundering start to the campaign for goalkeepers, sent Fulham on their way. After his wayward clearance led to Barry Hayles scoring his first Premiership goal, Louis Saha, who had also missed a series of first-half chances, scored his third in two matches to seal victory six minutes from time.

"It was important to get a win,'' said Andy Melville. The Fulham captain added: "Although our performance was good at Old Trafford it was very disappointing not to get at least a point. It left us very disappointed and we had to pick ourselves up.''

Peter Reid, the Sunderland manager, said: "We possibly had the best chances of the first half and I didn't see a goal coming in the second until we made the mistake which changed the game. Thomas had held his hands up. All goalkeepers make some mistakes. It's just one of those things.''

On a balmy Thames-side evening, the match had begun in an atmosphere redolent of times past with terracing on three sides. Craven Cottage had filled up early as fans sought to secure favoured places rather than arrive at the last minute as is the custom at all-seater grounds.

An announcement reminding Sunderland fans they were in a non-smoking area broke the sepia spell as did the realisation that, by dropping Jon Harley, Jean Tigana was only using £12m worth of his £24m summer investments.

One area he has not yet strengthened but is actively seeking to do so is in attack. Lyon's reluctance to sell Steve Marlet has given the men in possession, Saha and Hayles, the chance to stake their claim and both began intent on proving their worth.

Saha's quick feet and Hayles clever movement caused constant problems for a Sunderland defence including the rookie defender George McCartney. The striking pair's understanding was obvious as they carved out a string of chances for one another. Their finishing, however, did not match their approach play. Chances being either saved, blocked, or, more often simply missed. Fortunately for Fulham, Sunderland's strikers were no better. Lilian Laslandes, Kevin Kilbane and Kevin Phillips ­ in front of the watching Sven Goran Eriksson ­ all missed good chances on the counter-attack.

Gradually, as Gavin McCann and Stefan Schwarz gained a foothold in midfield, the game tightened up and chances grew sparse at both ends. Only a header by Alain Goma, and an overhead kick by Laslandes, went close to breaking an increasingly sterile stalemate.

But then Sunderland self-destructed. McCartney laid a ball back to Sorensen on his weaker foot and, trying to pass the ball out rather than fly-kick, he gave it to Steed Malbranque. He swiftly played return passes with Hayles before setting up the former non-League striker for his first Premiership goal.

As Sunderland pushed forward in search of an equaliser, Saha should have settled the issue only to mis-kick in front of goal. Any fears Fulham fans had that this would prove expensive were allayed three minutes later as the Frenchman saw his shot deflected in off the luckless McCartney.

There was time for Edwin van der Sar to show the value of his signing with a flying save. Then Fulham fans went off to celebrate their first top-flight victory since 1968 ­ presumably with champagne from Harrods.

Fulham (4-1-3-2): Van der Sar 6; Finnan 5, Goma 5, Melville 5, Brevett 4 (Harley 5, 55); Davis 6; Goldbaek 4, Malbranque 6, Collins 5; Hayles 8, Saha 6. Substitutes not used: Symons, Taylor (gk), Betsy, Ouaddou.

Sunderland (4-4-2): Sorensen 4; Haas 6, Craddock 4, McCartney 3, Gray 6; Hutchison 4, McCann 5, Schwarz 4 (Bellion, 75), Kilbane 6; Phillips 4, Laslandes 5 (Quinn, 70). Substitutes not used: Macho (gk), Williams, Rae.

Referee: B Knight (Orpington) 6.

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