Given Palace won their first match without Zaha in December and ended a two-year wait for a league win without their talisman, the concern over where his red card against Southampton left the side was understandable, but deadline day signing Michy Batshuayi stepped up in his place.
There was no place in the squad for Fulham's deadline day signings Lazar Markovic and Håvard Nordtveit, but Batshuayi, who joined Palace on loan from Chelsea until the end of the season early in the hours on Friday morning, helped seal the win after coming on late in the second half. His trickery in a tight space gave him the chance to force a good save from Sergio Rico and Jeffrey Schlupp tapped in the rebound to double the lead after Luka Milivojevic scored a penalty in the first half.
The Palace captain scored his seventh league goal of the season from the spot after Cyrus Christie used his hand to intercept a cross in the box and from then Fulham’s chances of leaving south London with anything to show for it disappeared.
The concern about Fulham not bringing in a central defender could have been eased by securing their first consecutive league wins of the season and getting a positive result against Palace, but the Cottagers barely made Vicente Guaita work on another disappointing afternoon for Claudio Ranieri’s side.
Midweek results increased the importance of winning for both teams and made the prospect of losing something that must be avoided as a matter of greater importance than ever before this season. Fulham’s dramatic comeback to beat Newcastle after going 2-0 down in the first half meant for once there was a possibility to edge closer towards safety and potentially sucking Palace towards them.
The opening phases were as cagey as to be expected for two sides in desperate need for three vital points, a fixture that would possibly merit the somewhat overused term ‘six-pointer’ despite it being the teams’ first match in February.
Ranieri’s side moved first and Mitrovic went close to opening the scoring as a result of the fluidity Fulham’s 3-4-3 formation. Ryan Babel, with his unmistakable red dyed hair contrasting against the pure white Fulham shirts, was a left-winger by name only and often interchanged with Tom Cairney to find pockets of space in front of the Palace backline, often available due to Cheikhou Kouyate’s absence with injury.
The pair exchanged a neat one-two and Calum Chambers found Joe Bryan with a sweeping pass to switch the play to the left. Aaron Wan Bissaka was unknown to Bryan’s movement and could only watch on as the wing-back’s cross was headed just wide by Mitrovic at the front post.
The visitors, sensing that there was an opening for them, began to find their rhythm but failed to make a good spell of attacking possession count for anything. Instead, Cyrus Christie, who may consider himself fortunate to be playing Premier League football for Fulham after two transfer windows, used his hand to beat the ball away from Christian Benteke’s head in the box and prompted Michael Olivier to make an easy decision and award Palace a penalty.
Milivojevic stepped forward and slammed the ball beyond Rico’s reach and opened the scoring with his 19th goal since making his debut, more goals than any player has scored since. Palace’s supporters defrosted and Fulham found themselves in the familiar position of being behind in the first half.
Ranieri was urging Bryan and Christie to get forward and be the men to supply crosses for Mitrovic to attack, but the bold plan had its downfalls closer to home. The intricacies of Zaha’s creative play in wide areas was not missed given the space Palace had to attack the wings. Townsend made light work of Fulham’s attempts to defend the right side and lifted a cross to Benteke at the back post, only for the Belgian to slam the crossbar with a bicycle kick. Rico watched on, the Fulham defence flapped their arms and Ranieri turned away in disbelief.
The effort capped a good for half for Benteke on his first start since suffering an injury in early September and put aside worries that the forward, who has not scored since April last year, is shy on confidence.
Luciano Vietto’s introduction after the break for Tim Ream, who lasted 20 minutes longer than he did against Newcastle, did little to shift the pattern of the match in Fulham’s favour.
Chances fell to Palace as Mamadou Sakho, Ayew and Jeffrey Schlupp inside the area as Palace searched for a second to end the game and squash any dwindling hopes of s Fulham comeback.
Palace got a glimpse of their deadline day signing when Batshuayi came on in the 81st minute to a rapturous reception, presumably from delirious supporters that remain amazed that the Chelsea forward joined them so late on Thursday night.
As Fulham pushed forward for an unlikely equaliser, Palace found space on a counter-attack and worked the ball to Batshuayi in the box. Quickly shifting the ball from one foot to the other opened a gap for him to unleash a powerful effort from close range. Rico did his best to palm away the ball with one hand but was left for dead by the Fulham defence as Schlupp reacted first and jabbed in the second from close-range.
For Fulham, not winning against a team that could be described as the classic ‘the ones you need to beat to stay up’ felt like a huge missed opportunity.
Tactical alterations and a general confused approach to their method of attack combined with a defensive mistake meant that the promoted side sit seven points shy of safety, and with Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City to play in March, you sense that their time in the top-flight is beginning to run out.
Palace took the welcome opportunity to put some distance between them and the relegation zone with a straightforward performance, but things could be rosier in the garden of Selhurst Park. Roy Hodgson was booed by all four corners of the ground when Benteke’s number was shown in red on the official’s board as he made way for Max Meyer. The forward, who is back to full fitness, led the line with the power and authority that provided a throwback to some of his best days.
Introducing Batshuayi was a positive move, but Meyer was still unable to add to his 10 league starts, having to make do with a second-half appearance from the bench.
In the 10-or-so minutes he played, Batshuayi stood out as a confident forward with a point to prove, something that Palace can use to propel them away from any relegation trouble and towards midtable. You can expect there to be strong competition for his services on a permanent basis come the end of the season.
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