The curtain rose on the first Saturday of the new season, and Premier League football returned to Craven Cottage for the first time in four years as Fulham welcomed London rivals Crystal Palace.
Both teams began the season hoping to carry on their form from last season, where Fulham were unbeaten at home since Halloween, and Palace were unbeaten in their last six games, winning the final three games of the season.
Fulham – 433 – Fabri, Christie, Chambers, Le Marchand, Bryan (Vietto 71’), Cairney, McDonald, Seri (Johansen 82’), Schürrle (Kamara 61’), Mitrovic, Sessegnon
Crystal Palace – 442 – Hennessey, Wan-Bissaka, Tomkins, Sakho, van Aanholt (Souaré 90+2’), Townsend (Kouyate 88’), Milivojević, McArthur, Schlupp, Benteke (Sørloth 83’), Zaha
Attendance – 24,821
Fulham had been grabbing all the headlines after their £100m+ transfer window spending spree, and how all of their new acquisitions would gel after only being together for a few days, seven of which made it into the starting line-up. Palace arrived on the banks of the River Thames with four new faces, none in the starting eleven, showing faith with a line-up pretty much identical to last season, only with Wan-Bissaka being promoted to the first choice right-back slot.
Questions over how long it would take for the new teammates to gel together were soon answered as the home side came flying out of the gates, dominating possession, and moving the ball around as if they had been playing together for years. A constant threat on every attack, Hennessey was drawn into making some important saves in the opening few minutes. There was no easing into the new season for the Welsh number one. The momentum was definitely with the home side as the roars from the ground grew, Palace forced to defend deep and attack on the counter, coming especially close when Zaha was inches away from converting a van Aanholt cross.
Just before the quarter hour mark, Mitrovic looked certain to break the deadlock, but was prevented by the persistent hustling of Tomkins forcing him to take the shot early, that was ultimately scuffed and tipped wide by Hennessey. The Serbian had another chance from the resulting corner kick, but he nodded his header just wide of the post.
The home side were dominating the ball, consistently holding a possession percentage in the 60’s, and one player that was shining more than most was new boy Jean Michaël Seri, as the former Nice man was running the show with his range of passing and closing down any Palace attack. Mitrovic forced another save from Hennessey, although it was a more comfortable one for the Palace shot-stopper.
Fulham were on top and looked more likely to score first, so it was only natural that it was the visitors that broke the deadlock, and from an unlikely source. Four minutes before the break, the Fulham backline had a moment of slack defending that allowed the marauding van Aanholt to slip the ball into the feet of fellow left-sided teammate Jeffrey Schlupp, who had the time to turn and drill the ball into the near post past the Fulham keeper who had had a pretty quiet opening forty minutes. It could have got worse for the Cottagers within a few minutes of the first goal when van Aanholt had a goal disallowed for offside after reaching Zaha’s pass.
Having gone into the break with the momentum, Palace continued where they left off, creating some early chances in the attempt to get the second. Benteke could have put the Eagles two to the good if he hadn’t been caught on his heels after Fabri spilled the ball from a fizzing shot from the boot of Van Aanholt, but the Belgian was too slow to capitalise.
Just after the hour mark came a moment of controversy, as the home crowd roared with cries of a penalty as a clumsy slide tackle from Mamadou Sakho resulted in Dortmund loanee Andre Schürrle going down in the box. However, referee Mike Dean didn’t agree with the fans, as he waved away the claims. Chances were shared and ultimately wasted by both sides soon afterwards, as Mitrovic headed another cross into Hennessey’s waiting hands, and Zaha was only denied by the legs of Fabri as he stayed big to stop the Ivorian who really should have scored.
However, the Palace talisman would get his rewards fifteen minutes later as he doubled Palace’s lead. It came from a great run from the young right-back Wan-Bissaka, resulting in him slipping the ball through to Zaha who calmly drew the keeper out and slid it past him for his first of the season. Both managers then rang the changes either in pursuit of a comeback or preventing one.
Both Hennessey and Fabri were forced into making saves as neither team let off in attack. The Welshman clawed away a Sessegnon header, and the Fulham new man between the sticks tipped wide a shot from one of Palace’s debutants, Cheikou Kouyate.
Finally, Mike Dean blew the whistle on what was an exhilarating first game of the season in the capital. Palace starting off the new campaign how they ended the last, and, although it ended in defeat, Fulham showed what an entertaining team they will be this season, certainly one of the teams to watch.
Next time out, both teams face big challenges as Fulham make the trip a few miles north to Wembley to play Spurs, and Palace welcome Mo Salah and friends to Selhurst Park.