CRAVEN COTTAGE is a homely ground in a Nationwide way, yet its team has a Premiership look to it. Now in the top 10, European football is a realistic aspiration for the Londoners. No matter who the opposition are, Fulham pass the ball confidently and create chances. Steed Malbranque is dangerous when he runs at defences and neat footballers such as Steve Finnan and John Collins ensure there is order to Fulham's game.
There were other plus signs yesterday; striker Steve Marlet was a constant threat and then there was Louis Saha. Manager Jean Tigana opted to start with Saha on the bench, but turned to his compatriot when Middlesbrough went a goal up early in the first half. It wasn't simply that the visitors scored but that Fulham had started without any spark. Once Saha came on in the 35th minute, the game changed.
Until then, Boro had been comfortable. Indeed, they went in front eight minutes into the match. Rufus Brevett was harshly judged to have pushed over Hamilton Ricard on the right. As Carlos Marinelli lined up to take the free kick, Gareth Southgate and Gianluca Festa made late runs into the Fulham penalty area.
Distracted by the centre-backs, Fulham's defenders paid little heed to left-back Colin Cooper creeping in at the far post. Sylvain Legwinski was particularly negligent and when Marinelli swung his free kick to the back post, Cooper scored with a straightforward header.
But Boro are no worldbeaters and the difficulty for them is that they know it. Once in front, they sank spiritually, as if they didn't believe that they were good enough to be there. The midfielders retreated towards their own goal, possession was cheaply surrendered and the game flowed relentlessly towards their goal.
Their defence has been excellent this season but Ugo Ehiogu is on the injured list and the Frenchman Franck Queudrue was suspended. Southgate was excellent again but there was simply too much for him to do. Middlesbrough might have got away with it were it not for Saha. The equaliser came five minutes after his arrival. Cooper climbed above Malbranque to head clear but was harshly penalised for pushing the Frenchman.
It was as questionable a call as the one that preceded Boro's goal and again it changed the course of the game. Malbranque floated the free kick into the six-yard area and Robbie Stockdale was caught between watching the ball and Saha, who stole a couple of yards and powered his header into the net.
That score lifted Fulham's spirits and they flew in a swarm towards the Boro goal. Like the two earlier goals, the winner on the stroke of half-time came wrapped in controversy. Saha cut in from the left and played the ball through for Marlet. Festa got his right foot to the ball but it ricocheted off him and Marlet reacted quickest of all to score. But he did seem to start from a position that looked suspiciously close to offside.
The flag stayed down and Marlet did well to guide the ball under Mark Crossley for the goal. Boro's players protested and Paul Ince's insistence that the goal should not have counted earned him a caution.
Count it did and Boro will hope that by the end of the season, it will not matter. There are no certainties here for Middlesbrough are now deep in relegation country. Manager Steve McClaren has been keen to buy Dwight Yorke and although Manchester United are prepared to sell, Middlesbrough can no longer spend like they once did. But club chairman Steve Gibson might find the cost of relegation is far greater than the £7m fee that United want for Yorke.
Boro certainly need something different and they played far more positively in the second period when their more attacking approach revealed the spirit within the style. But it didn't lead to many chances and Fulham, it was, who benefited more from the opening up of the match.
Saha continued to cause danger with his runs, Malbranque and John Collins had the touch of creativity that Boro lacked and if there was to be another goal, Fulham were the likely scorers. Southgate and Festa threw bodies in the line of fire and kept their team in the match. Admirable, but not enough.
JEAN TIGANA had always envisaged that a partnership of Louis Saha and Steve Marlet could strike terror into defences, but with Marlet, a record £11 million signing, injured until recently, the Fulham manager has had to show patience. Yesterday that wait ended as their goals saw off Middlesbrough.
The away team had suggested a different outcome as they forged ahead inside the first 10 minutes. For a side not in the best of form, that was a considerable fillip but with Saha's introduction after the half-hour mark, Boro began to come apart.
Having scored late on at Wycombe to maintain Fulham's interest in the FA Cup, Marlet was at least one striker approaching this contest with a measure of confidence. There were few among the opposition ranks after a prolonged run of ineptitude in front of goal, though with their early lead they were soon filled with confidence, Colin Cooper heading in at the far post from a Carlos Marinelli free kick.
Fulham were stunned, none more so than Edwin Van der Sar who had gone to catch the in-swinging delivery only to drop his hands, in the mistaken belief that it was falling safely behind. For the rest of the half the Dutchman was spared further embarrassment as Fulham dominated possession.
They were nearly back on terms straight away with Marlet breaking clear. Although Mark Crossley blocked his advance, the goalkeeper was helpless as Barry Hayles climbed but his poor headed attempt easily cleared the bar. It needed the introduction of Saha in the 36th minute to improve Fulham's potency.
Saha had been involved a mere four minutes when Steed Malbranque's set-piece cleared the red shirts and presented an opening which he skilfully exploited with a twisting header. The same player then helped fire Fulham into an interval lead, his drilled ball into the area diverting off Gianluca Festa. In a flash Marlet was on to it and Crossley was beaten for a second time.
Boro's protestations that Marlet had sprung from an offside position produced a yellow card for Paul Ince. The game had turned against them but Ince and his team could have no complaint because they had been pushed further and further back.
The deficit would have doubled on the hour had Robbie Mustoe not been stationed on the line to boot away Saha's header. The substitute was causing Boro no end of distress; his next involvement provoked a flurry of penalty-box activity that he felt should have won him a spot-kick.
Noel Whelan drove a shot across the goalmouth to remind Fulham they could ill afford to rest on their lead. Boro mounted more raids but could not find a finish.
Steve Marlet scored the winner for Fulham as they beat Middlesbrough 2-1. Colin Cooper took advantage of an awful defensive mix-up between Edwin van der Sar and Sylvain Legwinski to nod home an eighth-minute opening goal.
But Louis Saha came off the bench to equalise in the 40th-minute. Saha then turned provider to slip a pass through to Marlet - nearing full fitness after a two-month injury lay-off - who tucked the ball under Mark Crossley for his third goal in four games on the stroke of half-time.
Boro raced into an eighth-minute lead after his hopeful free-kick resulted in a terrible defensive mix-up between Fulham keeper van der Sar and Legwinski. The Dutch shot-stopper inexplicably left the ball to go out of play at the far post, just as Legwinski allowed Cooper to have a yard of space to nod the ball into the net for one of the softest goals of the season.
Fulham attempted to hit back when Steed Malbranque slipped a great pass through to Marlet - but Crossley deflected the Frenchman's shot skywards and Hayles headed the loose ball just over the crossbar.
Marlet came closer than his strike partner Hayles after 23 minutes. Legwinski humped a hopeful cross into the box and the former Lyon frontman rose highest to plant a firm header just inches over Crossley's bar.
Collins curled a 20-yard free-kick a foot wide of Crossley's left-hand post before Fulham manager Jean Tigana made an attack-minded substitution after 35 minutes. Off came Legwinski, suffering from what appeared to be a thigh injury, to be replaced by forward Saha. Hayles brought a spectacular save from Crossley a minute later with a powerful header from a dinked Steve Finnan cross.
The equaliser the home side deserved finally arrived in the 40th minute, when Saha rocketed a diving header past Crossley from a precise Malbranque free-kick. And it got even better for Fulham in stoppage time as Saha's poked ball into the box was deflected into the path of Marlet, who cleverly tucked it under Crossley to make the half-time score 2-1.
At the start of the second period, Marlet flashed a header a yard wide of Crossley's goal as the Cottagers tried to extend their lead.
And Tigana's team were agonisingly close to establishing a two-goal cushion in the 63rd minute. Saha's towering header was deflected goalwards by Marlet - but Robbie Mustoe awkwardly blocked on the goal-line and the ball was scrambled clear.
Malbranque came close to adding Fulham's third when Crossley produced a brilliant tip-over from his 15-yard drive late on.
Jean Tigana's very public search for a new Fulham striker is already having a useful side-effect in galvanising the existing ones. In yesterday's deserved victory over lightweight opposition, Louis Saha came roaring on shortly before half-time as a substitute with a point to prove, heading an equaliser and then creating the winning goal; Steve Marlet scored for the third time in four games since returning from injury; and Barry Hayles worked unstint-ingly alongside them.
Not for the first time, it was hard to see why Tigana's team should have struggled for goals earlier in the season, even when Marlet was out with a leg injury after failing to score in seven games.
Less difficult was discerning why Middlesbrough are in trouble, after hitting the net just four times in their last 10 matches and losing Alen Boksic, their one striker of quality, last week. Boksic, with a modest tally of six goals this season, had still scored twice as many times as any other Boro player. Steve McClaren, the manager, was surprisingly pleased with the performance, claiming that, had it not been for "five minutes of madness" before the interval, there would have been a more favourable result to bolster the relegation struggle.
That was certainly the key period of the game, though hardly the only one in which Fulham threatened. But the hosts had started slowly, conceding a bizarre goal early on, when Edwin van der Sar unaccountably assumed that an inswinging free-kick from the right by Carlos Marinelli was drifting beyond the far post and put his arms down by his side, as Colin Cooper arrived to head in.
Fulham, who had initially left Saha in the dug-out, preferring Hayles, were forced to call on him for the last 10 minutes of the first half, during which his impact was dramatic. Sylvain Legwinski, who had clashed early on with Noel Whelan, finally limped away and Saha joined Hayles and Marlet in an attack that was already growing more dangerous, as both had just come close to scoring.
Five minutes after his entrance, Saha, without a goal since November, stooped in front of a hesitant defence to nod in Steed Malbranque's free-kick. Then, in the final minute of added time, he advanced on goal from the left and played a subtle pass with the outside of his foot that bounced conveniently off Gianluca Festa for Marlet to slip in. Boro protested at length but in vain that Saha's countryman had materialised in the six-yard box from an offside position.
Only five minutes into the second half, McClaren changed tack with an odd substitution, replacing his second attacker, Hamilton Ricard, with the stocky midfielder Phil Stamp, who played wide on the left. Stopping Steve Finnan's breaks down the Fulham right was one thing, but Boro needed a goal.
Whelan, now on his own up the middle, almost provided it, though only after Robbie Mustoe had hacked off the line at the opposite end as Marlet nudged on Saha's downward header.
Tigana decided that the midfield should be shored up for the last 20 minutes and sent on the 6ft 7in Zat Knight for Hayles, but a third goal was still more likely than an equaliser, as Saha - twice - and Malbranque came closest to providing it.
News of the World
LOUIS SAHA came off the bench to lead Fulham's comeback at Craven Cottage.
The shot-shy Frenchman scored one and made another for Steve Marlet as the Cottagers sank struggling Boro.
Saha has been a shadow of the striker that set Division One on fire last season.
After netting three goals in the first two games of the season he had managed just one since - and that came almost two months ago against Newcastle.
But it took him just 13 minutes to find the net after coming on for injured midfielder Sylvain Legwinski.
Saha bulleted a diving header past Mark Crossley from a precise Steed Malbranque free-kick five minutes before the break.
It got even better for Fulham in stoppage time as Saha's poked ball into the box was deflected into the path of Marlet and he cleverly tucked it under Crossley to give the home side a half-time lead.
The £11.5million man's goal proved to be the winner and it paid back another chunk of his club-record transfer fee.
It was Marlet who kept his side in the FA Cup with a last-gasp equaliser at Wycombe on Tuesday night and he has now netted three in four games.
But while Fulham sit comfortably in mid-table, Steve McClaren's side are well and truly in the relegation dogfight.
McClaren, though, refuses to be downbeat about his side's slump.
He said: "We never really looked like conceding a goal in the first half, apart from those five minutes of madness just before half-time.
"We lost concentration and gave a silly free-kick away. We should have closed the game down just before the break - and but for that I think we would have got something this afternoon.
"In the second half I couldn't ask any more of the players. We blocked balls on the line and defended magnificently. You can't ask any more of players than that.
"Their attitude, determination and quality were excellent and they are very disappointed not to come away with anything. That's a platform - and if the players work that hard and perform with the same application as they did today results will follow.
"Five of our last six games have been away - and they were very, very tough. Now we've got a period of home games coming up - and we've got to be winning at home."
Fulham assistant boss Christian Damiano felt Boro were lucky to escape a thrashing.
He said: "It was a difficult start and an unfortunate goal. But we reacted well - and then in the second half we were strong and could have scored more.
"We were delighted with the strikers. We had chances as soon as Louis came on. He was important - and Marlet is back after a long injury and in good form.
"He has a good heading ability and has progressed very well in each game since his return.
"We were unlucky to miss some good chances - and we also had another big difficulty today with the pitch. It was hard to put speed into the game."
Boro hopes of a rare away win were raised early on as they were gifted the lead on eight minutes with the softest of goals.
There seemed no danger when Carlos Marinelli curled in a free-kick towards the far post.
But for some reason Edwin van der Sar decided to let the ball go and Colin Cooper left his snoozing marker Legwinski to nod the ball home.
Fulham's quickfire double just before the break put them in charge and there seemed little chance of the visitors mounting a fightback.
Marlet flashed a header a yard wide of Crossley's goal as the Cottagers tried to extend their lead at the start of the second half.
They were agonisingly close to opening a two-goal cushion just after the hour. Saha's towering header was deflected goalwards by Marlet - but Robbie Mustoe awkwardly blocked on the goal-line and the ball was scrambled clear.
Boro's only serious threat came when Noel Whelan skinned Andy Melville but dragged his angled shot a foot wide of the far post. Van der Sar also gathered Phil Stamp's 20-yard free-kick with 14 minutes left.
But Malbranque came close to adding Fulham's third late on when Crossley produced a brilliant tip-over from his 15-yard drive.