The alarming Premiership slump of Worthington Cup finalists Blackburn continued as they lost to Fulham and dropped into the relegation places.
Blackburn will rue their bad luck. They twice hit the woodwork and twice conceded goals after dominating play. But 10 defeats in 12 League games have left the First Division trap door gaping wide.
Their forgettable day was made even worse close to the final whistle when Craig Short was dismissed for using an elbow.
Fulham's victory enhanced their outside hopes of a place in Europe next season. Ironically their last game in May is away to Blackburn. That match may yet decide the top-flight future of Graeme Souness's side.
Fulham welcomed back John Collins and Sean Davis after injury while manager Jean Tigana preferred Rufus Brevett to Jon Harley in defence. Louis Saha dropped to the bench.
Blackburn were able to welcome back David Dunn after his injury lay-off but captain Garry Flitcroft was suspended. Souness reinstated Henning Berg, Craig Short and John Curtis in defence.
Rovers have a date in the Worthington Cup final in a fortnight's time but they arrived at Craven Cottage with their Premiership future in jeopardy, having lost nine of their previous 11 league games.
Luck was against them as early as the fourth minute when Andy Cole struck a post after being sent clear by Dunn, the ball rebounding to Edwin van der Sar.
Fulham did the double over Blackburn last season on their way to becoming champions of Division One and pushing Rovers into second place. But the visitors opened as the dominant force, Cole heading over from Dunn's free-kick.
That Blackburn had lost their last three league games was difficult to credit as the woodwork again denied them. This time Berg met Damien Duff's cross on the volley but Van der Sar touched it on to the crossbar.
The woodwork seemed intent on evening matters out. Fulham's goal-shy attack had scarcely featured until Steve Marlet executed an overhead special, only to see it come back off a post.
And on the half-hour Fulham scored. Marlet dispossessed Dunn and ran half the length of the pitch, combining with Barry Hayles. Marlet's cross looked to be handled by Berg but Hayles was alert to playing the advantage and hooked the ball past Brad Friedel for his 10th goal of the season.
With Fulham in the ascendancy Friedel kept Rovers in the game with a one-handed save from Steed Malbranque's direct free-kick.
The relegation places were beckoning for Blackburn if they could not turn around their fortunes. Dunn's flying header from Duff's cross flashed wide before Dunn's control let him down in an interchange with Cole.
And in a repeat of the first half pattern Blackburn fell further behind after dominating play. In a move that developed from a Blackburn free-kick Fulham flowed forward before Malbranque volleyed in Marlet's cross.
Freidel might have done better with a shot straight at him, but he did well to keep out Marlet's effort soon after. But it scarcely mattered and Blackburn's misery was complete with the dismissal of Short for elbowing Marlet.
Blackburn Rovers, promoted behind Fulham last season, were left in their slipstream again yesterday and sank beneath Bolton into the bottom three of the Premiership for the first time. They will stay there for some while, not having another League game for three weeks because of commitments in the FA Cup and Worthington Cup.
To make matters worse, Graeme Souness will have to do without two of his most important players, the gifted midfielder Tugay Kerimoglu and Craig Short, both of whom will now miss the Worthington final against Tottenham. Tugay collected a booking that means a suspension and Short was sent off for the third time this season after apparently elbowing Steve Marlet.
Unlucky early on, when they hit the bar and post, Souness's team eventually fell victim to a resurgence of confidence and positive play from Fulham, who had scored only six goals in nine previous games. Marlet, the creator of both goals, typified it, looking something more like an £11m striker at last, and happier playing through the middle than when stuck out wide, as he was in the bore-draw against Aston Villa a week ago.
Steed Malbranque was also back to his best, driving forward from his position at the head of the midfield diamond and scoring the second goal to accentuate the home team's self-belief. "We started very well and we were bossing the game," Souness said with every justification. "But from our point of view, both goals were very, very poor."
Nor did Souness appreciate the performance of the referee, Mark Halsey, who began the game in finnicky fashion by flourishing his yellow card three times in seven minutes. "Where is the game going?" the Blackburn manager demanded.
It was going his team's way for 20 minutes yesterday, during which David Dunn's smart pass sent Andy Cole through to hit a crisp shot against a post, and Henning Berg met Damien Duff's corner with a volley that Edwin van der Sar only just diverted on to the bar. The home defence, at that stage, were hardly justifying their status as the meanest in the Premiership.
Nor was Fulham's football flowing on a poor pitch, heavily watered to provide some extra zip. At last they threatened a goal, Marlet swivelling to hit a post, and then scored one; the Frenchman burst forward and Berg handled his cross but the referee sensibly waited before blowing for a penalty and saw Barry Hayles drive in the loose ball.
They pressed forward with some urgency after half-time but were undone on the break in the 65th minute. A free-kick just outside the Fulham penalty area came to nothing and Hayles led a swift counter which finished with Marlet crossing and Malbranque arriving for a volley that looped into the net off Brad Friedel. "We're in a difficult situation but not an impossible one and we have to show what we're made of," said Souness with a typically defiant air.
Back home in the Nationwide' sang the cocksure Fulham fans to their visitors, and they might also get the last laugh on top of yesterday's fun because this defeat sends Blackburn tumbling into the relegation zone. Only the inadequacies of their immediate rivals for relegation is likely to give them cause for hope just now.
Fulham boasted the meanest defence in the Premiership going into this game. If the way they defended against Blackburn is anything to go by they must also be one of the luckiest. For Blackburn, notoriously goal-shy this season, hit the woodwork twice in the opening exchanges, and Fulham often looked wobbly at the back when under the slightest pressure.
Andy Cole struck a post first with a sweet right-foot shot from the edge of the penalty area. Then Henning Berg cracked a volley from a Damien Duff corner which Edwin van der Sar miraculously diverted onto the crossbar. Both shots seemed worthy of a goal and Blackburn's initial confidence belied their poor Premiership standing just above the relegation zone with only two wins from their previous 13 games.
Fulham, whose fans were still celebrating last season's fun and games in which they firmly crushed Blackburn in the First Division title race, looked unsure of themselves until Steve Marlet raised confidence levels when he fashioned a right-foot overhead kick which also hit a post.
The enigmatic Marlet was clearly boosted too and set off on a run which ultimately led to Fulham taking the lead 10 minutes later.
The French striker dribbled his way to the edge of the Blackburn area, exchanged a one-two with Barry Hayles, and although Berg then handled the ball when Marlet played it back again, Hayles kept his concentration and poacher's instinct to force the loose ball into the net with a lunging volley.
Blackburn had to show some steel now or they would run the risk of being overrun. But, for a while, it was all Fulham, and Brad Friedel effectively kept Blackburn in the game with a save from Steed Malbranque's free-kick just before the break.
Blackburn's chance to get back into the game both came and went at the start of the second half when Duff crossed and David Dunn headed wide with the goal seemingly at his mercy. Lucas Neill's volleyed attempt soon after was even worse to watch.
Blackburn continued to press forward with purpose, and then, just as in the first half, they were hit by a Fulham break and went two goals down in the 63rd minute.
Midfielder Malbranque started and finished the move in devastating fashion. He broke from deep in his own half and played the ball long and wide to Marlet before making up ground into the penalty area and getting on the end of a cross to score with a flying left-foot volley.
Blackburn started this game well enough but ended up with what they deserved against the Fulham team with whom they so fiercely contested the First Division last season.
The visitors' misery was compounded when defender Craig Short was sent off for elbowing Marlet in time added on at the end.
AT LAST adding finishing to their finesse, Fulham, after an uneasy start, could well have beaten Blackburn more heavily. By the end, Blackburn, as even their manager Graeme Souness admitted, "were guilty of dropping their heads a little".
Craig Short, their central defender, was sent off near the close for thrusting an arm at Steve Marlet. And Turkish international Tugay was booked for the fifth time, meaning both players will now miss the Worthington Cup Final.
Much of Fulham's football was exuberant with their French attackers, Steed Malbranque and Marlet, often far too fast and elusive for a Blackburn defence which owed much to the acrobatics of their goalkeeper Brad Friedel.
Things might have been different if only Andrew Cole had scored for Blackburn after six minutes instead of hitting the left-hand post. Or if on 20 minutes, Fulham's giant Dutch goalkeeper, Edwin van der Sar, had not brought off a spectacular one-handed save when Damien Duff took a left-wing corner and Henning Berg sent in a mighty drive which was turned on to the bar. As against all that, Fulham themselves hit a post later in the half when, after Malbranque had untypically swung at the ball and missed, Marlet coolly controlled it with his chest then sent an overhead shot against the upright.
Duff would have another shot saved at full-length by van der Sar, but it was Fulham now who sparkled and on 31 minutes, took the lead. Marlet surged his way into the Blackburn box, exchanging passes with Barry Hayles. When Marlet attempted to shoot, the ball struck Berg's arm, the linesman waved his flag for a penalty, only for the ball to reach Hayles, who duly thumped it in.
Early in the second half, an inspired Malbranque made a chance which was wasted by his compatriot Sylvain Legwinski, but on 63 minutes, in went the second Fulham goal. Swift and incisive combination between Malbranque and Marlet saw the ball swept from left to right, while Blackburn's defence could merely look on. When Marlet eventually crossed from the right, Malbranque banged the ball home. Only yet another gallant save by Friedel kept out a thundering shot by Marlet.
Short was then sent off near the close, to the anger of Souness. After the first five minutes, the Blackburn manager said: "I told my bench, somebody's going to be sent off in this game."
Fulham's assistant manager, Christian Damiano, conceded: "We started badly and we were lucky in the first 20 minutes. The group reacted very well and we scored in good time." Indeed they did.
NEWS of the WORLD
Blackburn boss Graeme Souness told his players to stand up and be counted after defeat at Craven Cottage plunged them into the relegation zone.
Steed Malbranque's lightning breakaway and Barry Hayles' predatory strike killed off Rovers, who also had Craig Short sent off.
Souness said: "We're in the bottom three but I believe we can get out of it. I think we're playing good enough football.
"No-one enjoys being in this situation and now I think we have to win five games and draw a couple.
"We find ourselves in a difficult situation - but not an impossible one. You never find out about people until their backs are firmly against the wall. Ours aren't far from being there and now we will see what the players are made of."
And the Rovers boss was furious over Short's dismissal for elbowing Steve Marlet in the face.
He said: "I have worked with Craig Short for two years. He's an old school English pro and would not put his elbow in someone's face. He put his arm out to shield the ball.
"I thought someone would be sent off today, as the ref booked three players in the first five minutes - including two Fulham players for nothing."
Souness added: "Both goals we conceded today were very, very poor. For the first one, the linesman saw it as a penalty and I turned away - but there was a feeling from some of our players that it might have hit Barry Hayles' hand.
"And the way we conceded the second goal is a major reason why we find ourselves in the situation we're in.
"We're not good at sensing and smelling danger. Our midfielders need to sense danger better than they did today, or it will be a very difficult last 12 games."
Three shots hit the woodwork in an exciting opening spell.
Rovers duo Andy Cole and Henning Berg were both unlucky not to bag the opener, while Fulham forward Marlet also hit the post.
Hayles pounced in the 32nd minute, when referee Mark Halsey played an advantage rather than give a penalty after Henning Berg's handball.
The striker hammered home as Rovers players amazingly appealed for penalty!
The second period was also packed with attacking invention, mainly from the home side.
From one such move, Malbranque played a long-range one-two with Marlet and thumped home a great volley to clinch the win.
Referee Halsey was a busy man, booking Malbranque inside the opening 60 seconds when he blocked Lucas Neill's quick free-kick.
Andy Melville also went into the official's notebook a minute later when he impeded Cole.
Halsey also brandished his yellow card at Neill after his late tackle on Rufus Brevett.
Cole came agonisingly close to the opener in the sixth minute when he raced into space between centre-backs Melville and Alain Goma.
The former Manchester United striker's 14-yard effort thumped against Edwin van der Sar's right-hand post and rebounded into the goalkeeper's hands.
Van der Sar then pulled off a sensational instinctive block from a close-range Berg volley.
The centre-back met Damien Duff's corner with a sweet strike but the Dutch keeper made a wonderful reaction save to divert the shot onto the bar.
Next, it was the home side's turn to hit the woodwork, when Malbranque's miskick fell to Steve Marlet inside the Blackburn penalty area.
The £11.5million striker, with his back to goal, flicked the ball up and swivelled to hook it against Brad Freidel's right-hand upright.
Fulham took the lead after 32 minutes, thanks to that excellent piece of refereeing by Halsey.
Marlet robbed Tugay 30 yards from the home side's goal, raced to the other end of the field and played a great one-two with Hayles.
Marlet's cross from the right hit Berg's arm and Halsey's linesman flagged for a penalty.
But Hayles swooped to ram the loose ball into the Rovers net from seven yards.
Fulham midfielder Malbranque established a two-goal cushion in the 63rd minute.
The France Under-21 international collected Legwinski's clearance just inside his own half and threaded a ball out to Marlet on the right wing.
He delivered a fine deep cross which Malbranque raced 50 yards to meet with a sweet volley that bounced just in front of Freidel and into the net.
Fulham assistant manager Christian Damiano pinpointed Rovers' deep defending as a reason why his team won.
He said: "Blackburn have good quality offensively and can score goals, but I was very surprised they gave us more space than we usually get in midfield and up front.
"We had some good counter-attacks today, whereas against Villa it was difficult to find that space.
"We started badly today and were lucky in the first 20 minutes, but in the end we could maybe have finished with another goal."