Fulham edge home at the last against Saints on day of grateful remembrance for George Cohen
Fulham (1} 2 Pereira 33, Palhinha 88
Southampton (0) 1 Ward-Prowse 56
Joao Palhinha's late header gave Fulham a win on their return to league action at the Cottage after the World Cup on a day when the club honoured the passing of one of its favourite sons.
After the latest FIFA jamboree, it seemed somehow even more poignant for fans before kick-off to be taking a minute's applause for two former World Cup greats.
This was the week when the incomparable Pele joined one of Fulham's own, George Cohen, in the great cosmos of departed footballing legends.
Cohen of course never professed to be the global superstar that the Brazilian was, but in these parts of west London, few names could evoke as much pride as the 66 World Cup winner, who remained Fulham through and through, even in retirement.
He would have enjoyed this win. Fulham were not at their best but found a way to sneak home. They might even have won it more comfortably, but Aleksandar Mitrovic had an injury-time penalty saved
Fulham have taken up where they left off before the international break in terms of confidence and optimism – slender last-minute losses to Man City and Man United in early November not denting the sense that this top-flight season is going the right way for once.
They crushed Crystal Palace 3-0 on Boxing Day and were fully expecting to build on that win against bottom of the table Southampton – now under new management but arriving on a run of four league defeats in a row.
The Saints might have gone in front when Che Adams sprang the offside the race goalwards unopposed – Tim Ream in the centre playing him onside. But the onrushing Bernd Leno was equal to the challenge, deflecting the ball off target.
The Whites looked the stronger of the two before the break, though, even if Mitrovic is still trying to shrug off a nagging foot injury which he carried to Qatar.
William smashed a half-volley into the side-netting after a cleaver one-two with Andreas Pereira and the goal that had started to look inevitable came from a Willian corner in a training ground routine.
Antonee Robinson’s marauding overlap won the set piece and from the flag kick, an unmarked Pereira had all the time in the world to hit a volley which looped into the roof of the net off the boot of Saints skipper James Ward-Prowse and over keeper Gavin Bazunu.
But if there is one unquestionable trump card new boss Nathan Jones does have at his disposal, it is the reliability of Ward-Prowse from free-kicks and just before the hour, the Saints skipper had levelled the game with a glorious bent shot around the wall from 25 yards out. Leno had little chance.
That threatened to alter the narrative of the match as the belief in the visitors’ ranks grew. The lively Samuel Edozie almost put away a pass from Ward-Prowse.
But two minutes from time, there was Palhinha to nod home from close range – Kenny Tete having headed on a Pereira corner swung in to the near post.
Sub Dan James was bundled over by Lyanco at the death but Bazanu dived to his left to keep out Mitrovic's spot-kick. Luckily for Fulham, it did not matter.
Whites: (4-2-3-1) Leno - Tete, Diop, Ream, Robinson - Reed (Cairney 62), Palhinha - Decordova-Reid (James 62), Pereira (Tosin 90), Willian - Mitrovic. Subs not used: Rodak, Duffy, Wilson, Chalobah, Vinicius, Harris
Saints: (3-4-2-1) Bazunu - Lyanco, Bella-Kotchap, Salisu (Lavia 90) - Maitland-Niles (A Armstrong 90), Ward-Prowse, Elyounsoussi (Mara 90), Walker-Peters - Aribo (S Armstrong 67), Edozie (Perraud 77) - Adams. Subs not used: Caleta-Car, Caballero, Diallo, Finnigan