Rarely have eight minutes provided such a perfect vignette. Roy Hodgson’s rigid Crystal Palace, built to endure, snatch points and avoid wild declines. Scott Parker’s risk-taking Fulham, already thrashing madly to avoid relegation, playing with beautiful intentions but suffering mediocre results. This was never just a London derby, but a test of opposing ideologies, survival by efficiency or death by expressionism.
From the opening whistle, Palace duly reviled possession, bathed in pressure and soaked up Fulham’s attacks. For a squad of such quality, it can often feel so suffocating, the two-thirds of possession neglected, the arrestingly – almost impressively – poor number of passes and shots. It can sometimes render Palace offensively impotent, but against a Fulham side so defensively bare, it always felt as though it would be enough.
And so there was little surprise when Jairo Riedewald gave Palace the early lead with their very first counter-attack after a brilliant piece of trickery by Wilfried Zaha. In the second half, the winger struck himself in a mirror image, catching Fulham’s dazed defence cold on the break again. Aboubakar Kamara’s red card for a raking challenge only compounded Scott Parker’s misery, and despite a fine late strike from Tom Cairney, the manager’s task already feels morbid and inevitable. Palace’s system may not win many admirers, but perhaps the greatest vindication comes in seeing what could be the alternative.
For all the easy criticism of Fulham, they did at least begin this game with a degree of spite and impetus. Reverted to a traditional four-man defence, Antonee Robinson and Ola Aina sprinted in behind, while Ademola Lookman’s subtle footwork threatened on a slippery pitch. But as is now die-hard tradition, Palace had scarcely touched the ball before the first sign of Zaha’s ingenuity sent Fulham’s defence into paralysis. The Ivorian lost Aina with a wonderful feint, and forced Alphonse Areola into a save. From there, it rebounded back to Zaha, who paused nonchalantly and played a no-look pass into the path of Riedewald, who barely had to lift his head to tap in the opener.
And so with a goal safely secure, Palace sat back once more. Despite a disappointing performance from Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Fulham do still possess a flickering threat going forwards and the live wire and heartbeat was always Lookman, a box of dancing tricks in the rain, drawing fouls and committing defenders. First, he wriggled free of Nathaniel Clyne – making a second debut for Palace after 12 years – and fizzed a snapshot against the outside of the near post. Next, after a twisting run on the edge of the box, Lookman’s shot again rattled the woodwork, with Aleksander Mitrovic blazing the rebound hig over the bar. They are the faint margins between hope and despair. Unfortunately, for Fulham, luck currently feels a stranger.
Prior to this fixture, Parker spoke about his side lacking a “light bulb” to detect moments of dangers, the instinct to sniff out a threat that should be ingrained in every defender. And yet, every time Palace broke forwards, the sense of dread was palpable. Midway through the second half, after more pretty but ultimately blunt Fulham posturing, Andros Townsend picked out Buatshuayi, who surged into space and slid the ball across the face of goal, where Zaha ensured Palace of another three points.
It is such a dispiriting cycle for Fulham, a fool’s chase, on top for large periods of the game, but without the nous and edge to win rewards. They have taken just one point from their opening six games, conceded 14 goals, and survival already feels like something of a hopeless endeavour. Kamara’s red card only deepened their plight, even if Cairney’s brilliant late strike did add some gloss to the scoreline.
For Palace, who exuded confidence in the final stages, unshackled by their two-goal cushion, the answer to Hodgson’s critics comes in points alone. It might always feel like there could be more but at least, unlike Fulham, it is enough.