Claudio Ranieri made an immediate impact at Fulham as they climbed off the foot of the Premier League with an entertaining 3-2 home triumph over fellow strugglers Southampton.
Ranieri took over from Slavisa Jokanovic during the international break after Fulham had claimed just five points from their first 12 matches, conceding 31 goals in the process.
The Cottagers’ defensive woes remained evident on Saturday as Stuart Armstrong scored his first two Premier League goals, but Aleksandar Mitrovic claimed a brace of his own either side of an Andre Schurrle strike to ensure a winning start for Ranieri and Fulham’s first league victory since August 26.
As a result, they are now above Huddersfield Town and level on points with Southampton, this result piling further pressure on Saints boss Mark Hughes, who has overseen just one league win all season.
Manolo Gabbiadini had already wasted a fine chance before the lively Armstrong fired Southampton ahead in the 18th minute, taking a touch on his chest and shooting across Sergio Rico into the bottom-left corner after Fulham had failed to adequately clear Nathan Redmond’s cross.
Fulham felt Charlie Austin had obstructed a defender as Armstrong scored, but the mood of the hosts improved markedly after 33 minutes when a slick passing move culminated in Maxime Le Marchand crossing for an unmarked Mitrovic to nod home from six yards.
More poor Southampton defending enabled Ranieri’s men to take the lead before the break. Ryan Sessegnon’s low ball in from the left was allowed to run all the way through to the far post, where Schurrle finished emphatically.
After Alex McCarthy had denied Mitrovic with a superb save early in the second half, Armstrong produced a wonderful first-time finish from 20 yards to pull Southampton level.
Yet McCarthy could do nothing in the 63rd minute as Cyrus Christie’s cross was flicked on by Sessegnon and Mitrovic found the far corner with a stylish volley that proved decisive.
Rico pulled off a point-blank stop to deny Southampton substitute Michael Obafemi, while Southampton also saw an appeal for a penalty from Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg turned down as Fulham held on.
What does it mean? Ranieri gets just the start he needed
Ahead of the game, Ranieri told his players to “forget the past” as they aim to recover from an awful start to the season. While their performance was far from perfect, the confidence gained from this win could well be invaluable. Anything less than three points would have been a major blow at the start of Ranieri’s reign.
Mitro back on fire
Mitrovic started the season in prolific form, but he had endured an increasingly concerning goal drought prior to this contest. The former Newcastle forward was back to his best on Saturday, his second goal coming courtesy of a finish of the highest quality. Armstrong also shone for Southampton, yet his admirable efforts proved in vain.
Hughes on the brink
It is hard to see Southampton keeping faith with Hughes for too much longer if results do not improve swiftly. Their only Premier League win this term came on September 1 and they were guilty of some abysmal defending in the first half as they threw away the advantage given to them by Armstrong.
Key Opta Facts
– Fulham manager Ranieri has won his first league game in charge of a team in six of his last seven such attempts (L1).
– Hughes has won just three of his 21 Premier League games in charge of Southampton (14.3 per cent), the worst win ratio of any Saints manager in the competition (minimum 20 games).
– Mitrovic has scored four headed goals, more than any other Premier League player this season.
– Fulham picked up their first Premier League win in 10 matches, losing seven of the previous nine.
– Fulham are without a clean sheet in their last 17 Premier League games, conceding at least twice in 15 of those. They are the only side in the Premier League yet to keep a clean sheet in 2018-19.
– Armstrong scored a competitive brace for the first time since December 2016 for Celtic against Partick.
Ranieri will come up against two of his former employers, Chelsea and Leicester City, at the start of December. Southampton are in EFL Cup action at Leicester on Tuesday, while their next two Premier League matches are daunting contests against Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur.