From Daniel Crawford at Craven Cottage
LIKE a beast awakening from their winter hibernation, Fulham took a while to famaliarise themselves with their surroundings before devouring their prey.
After a shaky start, they began to cut upon Blackburn at regular intervals and had it not been for the excellence of Brad Friedel in the Blackburn goal, Graham Souness could have been contemplating a heavier defeat.
As it was, Jean Tigana was content to thank his own goalkeeper and the woodwork for keeping his team in a contest that had threatened to become a rout.
Blackburn, beaten for the third time in two seasons by the London outfit, must now prepare for the Worthington Cup final in a fortnight without the services of Tugay, who picked up his fifth booking of the season, and Craig Short, who was sent off for lashing out at Steve Marlet.
Rovers will rue their missed chances after their midfield dominated the opening half an hour without punishing the home side for their lack of cohesion in defence. They could have been two down inside the opening twenty minutes had Andy Cole found the net and not struck a post after being put through by the lively David Dunn and if Edwin van der Sar had not produced an athletic save to push a booming Henning Berg volley onto the crossbar.
Fulham realised how fortunate they were to still be on level terms and tried to make the visitors pay. They had offered little as an attacking force until Steed Malbranque's uncharacteristic miskick fell kinding for Steve Marlet, who swivelled to crash a volley against the near post.
Suddenly Rovers were penned back and Fulham's neat passing game began to find the necessary penetration. Marlet started to ressemble a £11m striker when he caught Dunn in posession and surged down the right flank.
Having played a swift one-two with Barry Hayles, Marlet's cross was handled by Berg and, although the assistant referee flagged for a spot-kick, referee Mark Halsey played an intelligent advantage and Hayles was on hand to sweep the loose ball into the net.
Fulham ended the first half on top, with Malbranque's free-kick brilliant clawed away by Friedel in stoppage time, and started the second period in much the same vein.
Malbranque was their creative hub, spraying accurate passes that belied his tender age. He out a chance for Sylvain Legwinski, but the midfield shot wastefully across the goal. It was not to matter, though as the home side soon troubled their advantage.
Malbranque started and finished the move, first collecting a clearance from Legwinski short of the halfway line and playing a longe-range one-two with Marlet. When Marlet's cross eventually reached Malbranque, Friedel had no reply to the Frenchman's powerful close-range shot.
After that, Blackburn heads began to drop and Fulham's flair took over. They could have had a hatful by the end, with Friedel clinging onto a fierce drive from Marlet at his near post.
Short's late sending off left an angry Souness berating the referee, but it was more in frustration than anything else, although Souness tried admirably to defend his centre-back. 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."
It appears that Fulham are the only one of the promoted trio who will not have to worry about an immediate return to the first division. Despite their Worthington Cup heroics, Blackburn are now in a perilious position in the league, dropping back into the bottom three after this disappointing defeat, and Bolton are still embroiled in a relegation dogfight.
The fashionable London outfit might not posess the strength in depth to push for Europe and assistant manager Christian Damiano was happy enough with the three points. "We started badly and were lucky to be level after the first twenty minutes," he conceded. "The group reacted very well and we scored in good time. In the end, we could have scored more." It is the lack of a reliable goalscorer that may hinder Fulham's European ambitions, but it is clear that Rovers have more pressing concerns.
"We find ourselves in a difficult situation - but not an impossible one," said Souness. "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."