Saints down after defeat to Fulham

2022-23/Matchdays/20230513 Southampton vs Fulham/AY5I5144_d8e9079f-9b40-4ac7-8ae3-fc2d0b8e7280_20230513033010

Southampton’s 11-year stay in the Premier League came to an end as Fulham continued their excellent season with a 2-0 victory at St Mary’s.

After a tepid first half, Carlos Vinicius struck the opener three minutes into the second period, just seconds after namesake Alcaraz had seen a goal ruled out for offside at the other end.

Paul Onuachu headed over with Saints' best chance to equalise, before substitute Aleksandar Mitrović celebrated his return from an eight-match suspension with Fulham’s second.

The result leaves Saints eight points adrift of safety with only two games to play, confirming Championship football at St Mary’s next season.

But Saints should take heart from their visitors’ story, themselves relegated two years ago, but already thriving on their top-flight return.

Rubén Sellés made two changes to his side, including a first Premier League start since February for Onuachu in the absence of Ché Adams, who was not fit enough to be included in the matchday squad.

Elsewhere Lyanco, who scored his first Saints goal in Monday night’s dramatic defeat at Nottingham Forest, replaced Armel Bella-Kotchap in the starting line-up – just as he did in the first half at the City Ground.

This was a game that had an end of season feel to it right from the off. Fulham, comfortable in mid-table, passed the ball confidently but lacked the spark to up the tempo and prise Saints open.

The hosts had started rather passively, but solid enough in their structure, and when Fulham were rushed into a stray pass in their own half, the locals rose to acclaim the step up in urgency.

Onuachu then repeated the feat to rob Issa Diop and immediately tried his luck from 30 yards. Bernd Leno saved comfortably, but it was another sign that Saints were gaining confidence.

When Fulham launched a counter-attack down the other end, Vinicius should have done better from Willian’s cross, but mistimed his volley from eight yards.

Saints then survived a penalty scare in the 26th minute when Vinicius leapt to meet Harry Wilson’s cross, which subsequently struck Lyanco’s hand.

Perhaps Vinicius jumping in front of the defender saved him in the eyes of the referee and VAR – had there even been the slightest of touches from the Fulham man, Lyanco could not have avoided the handball, and replays were inconclusive.

With Onuachu on the pitch, Saints had their own target from crosses. When the ball was played in, the towering Nigerian made life awkward for the visiting defenders, but none of the deliveries were quite where he wanted them.

With half time approaching, Saints were indebted to a goal-line clearance from Lyanco to keep them on level terms.

Former Saint Harrison Reed found Willian in the box, who brilliantly volleyed towards the top corner with his left foot, firing the ball back across the stranded Alex McCarthy from the corner of the six-yard box, but Lyanco was there, covering on the post, to head the ball clear.

A largely uneventful first period gave way to an explosive start to the second half, as both teams had the ball in the net inside three minutes of the restart.

Unfortunately for Saints, after James Ward-Prowse slipped the ball through for Alcaraz to beat Leno with a low shot, the flag was raised for offside and VAR concurred.

To add to the pain, Fulham turned the tables to score themselves, after Reed slid in to keep the ball alive in the box and Vinicius profited with an easy tap-in.

Onuachu threatened to score his first Saints goal and register a quick-fire equaliser when he rose at the far post to connect with an inviting cross from Kyle Walker-Peters, but he could not keep the header down, before a vital touch from Jan Bednarek denied Vinicius a second at the other end.

Sellés turned to his bench for the first time just after the hour mark, introducing Sékou Mara and Kamaldeen Sulemana as Onuachu and Theo Walcott made way.

Opposite number Marco Silva responded by bringing on Mitrović, as Fulham’s top scorer made his comeback after an eight-match ban, replacing goalscorer Vinicius to rapturous applause and countless Serbia flags in the away end.

The moment the travelling fans craved duly arrived seven minutes later, as Mitrović peeled off on to Walker-Peters at the far post and was simply too strong for the diminutive full-back, craning his neck to head home Wilson’s cross from the right that was fractionally behind him.

Mohamed Elyounoussi and Moussa Djenepo were called upon from the bench straight after Fulham’s second goal, while Adam Armstrong followed in the closing stages, but Saints were unable to find a way back into the contest on the day that their fate was mathematically sealed.

Southampton: Alex McCarthy, Kyle Walker-Peters, Jan Bednarek, Lyanco, Ainsley Maitland-Niles (Adam Armstrong 82), James Ward-Prowse (c), Roméo Lavia, Theo Walcott (Kamaldeen Sulemana 62), Carlos Alcaraz (Mohamed Elyounoussi 73), Stuart Armstrong (Moussa Djenepo 73), Paul Onuachu (Sékou Mara 62).

Unused subs: Gavin Bazunu, Duje Ćaleta-Car, James Bree, Joe Aribo.

Fulham: Bernd Leno, Kenny Tete, Tosin Adarabioyo, Issa Diop, Antonee Robinson, Harrison Reed, João Palhinha (Sasa Lukic 77), Harry Wilson (Neeskens Kebano 78), Tom Cairney (c) (Bobby De Cordova-Reid 69), Willian (Manor Solomon 78), Carlos Vinicius (Aleksandar Mitrović 65).

Unused subs: Marek Rodak, Shane Duffy, Cédric, Luke Harris.

Goals: Vinicius 48, Mitrović 72.