Patrick Vieira must be wondering how he got it so wrong. Crystal Palace’s hopes of recording a fourth straight Premier League home win for the first time in their history were dashed within three minutes at the end of the first half by a clinical Fulham side led by the brilliant Aleksandar Mitrovic.
The disastrous defense that saw Bobby De Cordova-Reid open the scoring was compounded by Tyrick Mitchell’s blood rush which earned him a straight red card and left Vieira’s side a mountain to climb. Another red card for James Tomkins – making his first premier league since Boxing Day last year in the absence of the suspended Marc Guéhi – plus goals from Tim Ream – the captain’s first in the Premier League – and Mitrovic’s 10th of the campaign, gave the men a deserved victory by Marco Silva. This means they already only need two more wins to match their points tally from two seasons ago.
“We had a plan and the players stuck to it,” Silva said. “Their home record is very strong but we were the best team on the pitch and showed the maturity we needed.”
Both teams entered the World Cup break having to simmer disappointing defeats, with Palace starting the day behind their visitors on goal difference only after playing one game fewer. With home support hungry for competitive action since a win over Southampton here almost two months ago, Palace were warmly welcomed as they emerged to Insomnia, from Faithless, as a tribute to former Palace associate manager, Maxi-Jazz, who died on saturday.
Silva admitted beforehand that Mitrovic still hasn’t fully recovered from the foot injury that saw him miss Fulham’s last two games before the World Cup, although he went on to play all three of Serbia’s games in Qatar. Yet such is his importance to this team that it was no surprise to see him play a starring role as they recorded a first victory since winning Leeds in October.
Almost as much as Mitrovic, Andreas Pereira was the driving force behind Fulham’s excellent start to the season and his plunging long-range free kick forced Vicente Guaita to act early. With Eberechi Eze stuck in an unfamiliar position on the left flank, Harrison Reed and the exceptional João Palhinha were able to dominate the early exchanges in midfield. Meanwhile, an isolated Wilfried Zaha was left to feed on the few remains that came before him.
A mazy dribble from the elusive Michael Olise mid-half finally injected some urgency into the home side, but Jordan Ayew saw his shot hit the bar. Mitrovic looked dismayed when referee Andy Madley ruled against him after a scuffle with Nathaniel Clyne, but less than a minute later it was his inviting cross that allowed De Cordova-Reid to give away the advantage to Fulham with a chilling header.
Palace supporters barely had time to digest this bad news when more arrived in the form of Mitchell’s sacking. After miscontrolling the ball with his chest, the England defender caught Kenny Tete high on a shin and left Madley no other option. Mitchell walked down the tunnel with his shirt over his head.
Vieira looked less than impressed when Palace walked off the pitch at half-time and they went out for the second half no doubt with their manager’s words still ringing in their ears. But any hope of a comeback seemed over when Tomkins was sent off after being shown a second yellow card for blocking a Mitrovic run with his shoulder. It was a decision that infuriated Vieira and the home fans, who must have felt it was not their day. “From the first minute, Fulham were the better team. In the end, we got what we deserved,” a crestfallen Vieira admitted.
Palace’s fate was sealed when Ream struck from close range after Mitrovic had been the first from another corner. Replays showed the Serb pulling Joel Ward’s shirt into the box and the ball hitting his hand, but Madley ruled it was still a goal after being sent off to review the incident by VAR.
Having already hit a post, Pereira could have made it an even more forgettable occasion for Palace if Guaita hadn’t come to the rescue. But it was Mitrovic who was to have the last laugh as he watched Willian’s cross to end the perfect afternoon for Fulham.