It may mean little in the wider scheme of things but, long free of any fear of demotion, Southampton continue to sizzle. They followed up Tuesday’s 3-1 dismissal of Crystal Palace with an identical result against relegated Fulham who, as ever, flattered to deceive and looked the Championship side they are about to be.
With Josh Maja and Aleksandar Mitrovic having scored just four goals between them in 2021, Fulham manager Scott Parker dispensed with both of them and gave a first start to Lisbon-born Fabio Carvalho, an England under-18 international on account of residence, having moved to the UK as a 10-year-old.
Harrison Reed’s return gave Parker the option to deploy Ola Aina as the second defensive chaperone. Carvalho and Bobby Decordova-Reid offered width and Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa midfield authority but, as so often this season, Fulham looked the part but were reminded that looks aren’t everything.
“Today was a snapshot of our season,” sighed Parker. “We played well at times, but once again we conceded goals too easily.”
Marooned on the right, Carvalho cut a forlorn, isolated figure, although his moment and the hint of future promise would come when he expertly walloped Fulham’s consolation late on. “I don’t want to heap too much on him,” said Parker, “but he was a shining light today.”
Decordova-Reid was forced to track back to cover Takumi Minamino’s forays and, for all their aesthetically pleasing interplay, Fulham again lacked both attacking thrust and defensive solidity.
Southampton manager Ralph Hasenhuttl, meanwhile, continued his policy of goalkeeper rotation and so started Alex McCarthy, while Jan Bednarek’s ankle forced him to give way to Mohammed Salisu. Afterwards, Hasenhuttl was delighted.
“I must say that I was very pleased with my side today. We’ve gave a very good performance and after a difficult two or three months, we’re getting better and better. It’s not a coincidence we’ve scored 10 goals in four home games.”
If not quite displaying the levels of intensity which saw off Palace, Southampton stretched Fulham from the off. After 27 minutes, Joachim Andersen felled Stuart Armstrong and gave away a cheap free kick close to the goalline.
That master of the dead ball, James Ward-Prowse, dinked a delicious free kick into the danger zone. It eluded Danny Ings at the near post, but not Che Adams behind him. With the static Aina unaware of the impending danger, the Scotland international swept home his second goal in a week.
If Fulham’s heads were down, Southampton sensed a boots-filling opportunity. Soon Alphonse Areola was flinging himself across goal to paw aside another superlative Ward-Prowse free kick, Nathan Redmond was making hay down the left and Armstrong was cutting off the supply line to and from Zambo-Anguissa.
Only Tosin Adarabioyo’s anticipation and athleticism prevented Adams from tucking in another Ward-Prowse free-kick and Areola saved smartly again, this time from Redmond, who, once again, had been left in space by Kenny Tete.
Nature finally took its course on the hour when Armstrong played an incisive ball to the overlapping Kyle Walker-Peters, who crossed low for the unmarked Nathan Tella.
Tella had replaced Ings on the medical staff’s advice – “I’m a good listener,” chortled Hasenhuttl – and gleefully swept home his first senior goal.
A graduate of the Southampton academy after being rejected by Arsenal, Tella would go on to assist his fellow substitute Theo Walcott for Southampton’s third and Hasenhuttl was full of praise.
“A special moment for him. Nathan had a bad injury when he came here and that’s [taught] him how special being a footballer is. He’s also a role model: other academy players can see they can come through here.”
Job done? Southampton certainly thought so. They stepped back and Fulham scored. Decordova-Reid played a fine pass through to Carvalho. Jannik Vestergaard slipped, Jack Stephens was too slow to react and the youngster took two strides forwards and crashed a shot against the underside of the bar and in.
Stung, Southampton roused themselves into action and matched their score against Palace. Adams cleverly found Tella, whose brilliant backheel bamboozled a clutch of defenders, freeing Theo Walcott to guide a shot past Areola. Job done? It was now.
Full time, Southampton 3 Fulham 1
After a slow-burn first half, that ended up being a really entertaining game of football.
Having gone 2-0 up, Southampton seemed to be strolling to the win. All of a sudden, midway through the second half, Fulham upper their intensity, scored and made their hosts extremely uncomfortable.
Far from folding under the pressure, however, the Saints held on. Walcott eventually made the points safe with a fantastic finish.
Lookman gets in behind on the left and whips a ball across the face of goal, but Stephens clears.
Tella goes close again, slaloming into the box before firing just wide of the near post.
GOAL! Southampton 3 Fulham 1
Just as the Saints seem to be firmly on the back foot, Walcott scores a cracker.
Adams plays in Tella, who adds an assist to his earlier goal with a cheeky backheel. Walcott does the rest, thundering a shot past Areola.
Lookman cuts inside and finds the omnipresent Decordova-Reid in the box, but the ball bounces up onto his arm and Southampton get a free kick.
Armstrong off, Diallo on
... Minamino also makes way for Theo Walcott.
Lookman gets a wicked cross into the box, but nobody gets on the end of it.
Fulham suddenly look dangerous here, with Southampton flagging.
GOAL! Southampton 2 Fulham 1
Carvalho scores a fantastic goal on his first ever Premier League start. Decordova-Reid plays him through and he lifts a shot above McCarthy, off the underside of the crossbar and in.
Bryan dances past Armstrong and Minamino in midfield before finding Decordova-Reid with a pass which utterly melts Southampton's defence.
Just as it looks like Fulham are about to pull one back, however, Salisu gets across and makes the tackle.
Redmond tees up Armstrong on the edge of the area, but his shot is deflected out for a corner.
Ward-Prowse, the set-piece master, steps up. His delivery is uncharacteristically loose and doesn't make it past the first man.
Bryan has a pop from distance, but it goes wide.
Decordova-Reid sends Cavaleiro one-on-one with McCarthy, but Stephens gets back and makes a goal-saving tackle.
Parker makes a double substitution
Aina and Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa swap out for Joe Bryan and Ademola Lookman.
GOAL! Southampton 2 Fulham 0
Not a bad start from Tella, that.
Armstrong plays through Kyle Walker-Peters on the overlap and, in a beautifully simple move, he strokes a cross to Tella who applies a neat finish. That's the first goal of Tella's senior career.
Southampton go close!
Redmond gets in behind on the left and gets a shot away from a tight angle, which is saved by Areola.
First change for Southampton
Ings comes off for Nathan Tella as Ralph Hasenhuttl looks to inject some extra energy into his team.
Minamino frees up Armstrong in the box, but his shot is blocked by Tosin Adarabioyo.
Southampton win a free kick in a dangerous area and Ward-Prowse sends another perfect delivery to Adams, but he can't get on the end of it.
Saints have a corner and Ings glances a header wide. Minamino tries to have a go himself, but Fulham smother the ball.
Onomah gets past Jack Stephens with a clever flick, but the ball rolls out of play before he can square it.
Teams are back out
... and the second half is about to kick off.
Can Fulham salvage a result at St Mary's? Or will Southampton cruise to victory? Let's find out.
Half time, Southampton 1 Fulham 0
Fulham end the first half with 59 per cent possession but few quality chances, which may feel familiar.
Southampton were far from dominant but did look marginally more dangerous, with Adams' goal at the set piece the only thing separating the sides at the break.
Carvalho shows some nice footwork to get past Mohammed Salisu out wide, but his attempted cross floats out of play.
Armstrong plays through Ings who, despite a suspicion of offside, rounds Areola only to be forced wide before he can shoot.
Southampton win a corner but, after a bit of head tennis, Fulham clear their lines.
There's been a pre-season tempo to much of the first half so far.
Kenny Tete crosses from deep and McCarthy fluffs his attempted catch, but tidies up at the second attempt.
Minamino exchanges passes with Ings, before he's fouled by Aina right on the edge of the area.
Ward-Prowse steps up and hovers menacingly over the ball. He whips a shot towards the far corner, forcing Areola to make a diving save.
Good chance for Fulham!
A rebound in midfield falls to Cavaleiro, who backheels to Carvalho. The teenager cuts across the box and gets a shot away, but it's too close to Alex McCarthy.
GOAL! Southampton 1 Fulham 0
From the ensuing free kick, Ward-Prowse drops a delivery right to the feet of Che Adams.
He lashes into the back of the net from close range. Southampton lead!
Andersen is booked for a soft foul on Stuart Armstrong but, to be fair, it isn't the first he's committed.
Fulham win a corner and Joachim Andersen rises highest.
While his attempted flick-on evades his teammates, it does briefly look like it might go in. It doesn't, though.
Fulham have a good spell of possession which ends with Bobby Decordova-Reid attempting to chip a through ball to Ivan Cavaleiro, which is cleared.
Minamino gets in behind but, just as he pulls the trigger, Ola Aina leaps in the way and the ball ricochets up off his leg into Areola's grateful arms.
A long punt from deep almost sets up Danny Ings for a goal, but he slips as he shoots and Alphonse Areola makes the save.
Takumi Minamino cuts infield, shimmies and sends Nathan Redmond clear on the left, but he blasts a shot into the rafters.
Fulham win a free kick, which James Ward-Prowse heads out for a corner.
It comes to nothing. As you were.
It's been a choppy start here.
Fulham take a few risks while playing it out from the back but, while Southampton harry them, they manage to escape the pressing trap. They work the ball up to the other end of the pitch, where Josh Onomah snatches at a shot and sends it wide.
Players in the tunnel
... and kick off is imminent. Football! Football! Football!
Reed urges Fulham to play for pride
Asked how important it is for Fulham to make a statement against Southampton after suffering relegation, former Saints man Harrison Reed says: "We're looking at this as a game where we can come out and show what we're really about again.
"We've had a tough run of form but we know what a team we can be. Today is the perfect opportunity to show everyone again."
Warm-ups almost complete
Vestergaard wants Saints to rebuild self-belief
While they beat Crystal Palace 3-1 in their last outing, Southampton have struggled for form over the last few months.
Speaking to Sky before kick off, Jannik Vestergaard admits he and his teammates have to put that right. "Wins always give confidence and we have been short on those in the second half of the season," he says. "I think it's been obvious to see, even in games where we've been not far off it.
"[We need] that confidence and feeling that we can finish games strongly and actually win them. We have been lacking that a little bit, but the win [against Palace] has done a lot for our confidence and now in the last three games we're looking to get three wins, starting today."
First start for Carvalho
Having made his first appearance in the Premier League against Chelsea earlier this month, Fabio Carvalho makes his first start for Fulham this afternoon.
Carvalho, 18, has come through the club's academy and has also represented England up to under-18s level.
Fulham team news
Southampton team news
Parker admits Fulham have been 'found out at certain times'
Scott Parker has revealed he wanted Fulham to be an attack-minded team this season despite their struggles in front of goal contributing to their relegation.
The Cottagers' stint in the Premier League has lasted just one season after they were relegated on Monday following a 2-0 defeat against Burnley.
Fulham were widely criticised in 2018-19 when they were relegated despite spending almost £100 million on transfers, conceding 81 goals in the process.
Parker took the reins as the third manager during that campaign and admitted it was something he wanted to avoid this time round.
"It's always a starting point for a team to give yourselves a solid base and a real platform. That's where we were at the start of this season," he said.
"But we want to be on the front foot and be an attack-minded team, there is that element as well.
"Last time we were in this league we conceded a lot of goals and the way this season started it was looking similar. We brought in some additions, did a lot of work and improved defensively.
"I would also say that even with our attack-minded play we were creating a lot of chances. We were getting the ball in the right areas but fell short at certain moments in terms of being clinical.
"But as a team we have progressed in the right way. This division is unforgiving and we have been found out at certain times."
Ahead of their trip to Southampton, Fulham have conceded 47 goals this season, of which 10 came in their opening three matches.
With a number of players' loan contracts due to end, Parker suggested he could bring in other squad players for the remaining matches.
"Yeah it's definitely something we need to consider," he said.
"As much as we have got three games here now, and they are important games, you are looking ahead as well.
"That's a decision I need to make and work out. There's definitely a balance in that for sure. We'll see how that pans out in the coming days."