If your glass is half full, Fulham have solidified to an extent that bodes well for the scrap ahead. For those feeling drained of festive cheer, Scott Parker’s side cannot afford to drop many more points when they catch their opponents on an off-day such as this. A fourth consecutive draw, and second goalless affair at Craven Cottage in 10 days, was fair and adds to the sense their early-season defensive calamities are behind them; given victory against an under-strength Southampton side would have wrenched them out of the relegation zone, though, it was hard not to sense this was a missed chance.
In fairness, there were not too many of those during the afternoon. Football without fans feels particularly bleak on Boxing Day, when the conviviality of the season is supposed to pulsate around the stands and spill into surrounding streets, and both teams could have used some extra buzz. Neither could be faulted for endeavour and there was plenty to admire about their structures off the ball; none of that was enough to set pulses racing and the major frustration was felt by those in home colours.
“It’s a disappointed dressing room, we feel it was two points lost,” said Stuart Gray, the Fulham assistant manager, who took remote orders from the self-isolating Parker throughout the 90 minutes. “You can tell by [Southampton’s] reaction that they’re happy with the point. We got into some very good areas and our final ball just let us down.”
He was right about Fulham’s inability to make promising positions count. They worked the ball wide smartly enough but tended to fall short through a mixture of inadequate delivery and an absence of focal point. When both were in sync, 10 minutes after half-time, the impressive Antonee Robinson crossed deliciously from the left only for an unmarked Ivan Cavaleiro to head over.
That was their best opportunity, although André-Frank Zambo Anguissa had air-kicked when found by Ademola Lookman during an opening spell that promised more. They threatened again towards the end, when the substitute Aleksandar Mitrovic volleyed wide after more fine work from Robinson and Ola Aina had an effort blocked, but the sum of their efforts was not really enough given Southampton never really got going.
“It was the most important thing first to have a clean sheet,” said Ralph Hasenhüttl, who confirmed Gray’s view by adding that he could “live with a point”. That was largely because his list of absentees included Danny Ings, Oriol Romeu and Jannik Vestergaard, meaning the spine of Southampton’s side was decimated. Shane Long and Ibrahima Diallo had to make their first top-flight starts of the season and there was a recall for Jack Stephens at the back. They looked disjointed, their ambition noticeably a notch below usual levels, although they came closest to scoring a winner and returning to the top four.
James Ward-Prowse’s brilliance from set pieces was a constant amid the flux and, although Darren England looked happy to play the advantage after a foul by Harrison Reed before the half-hour, the midfielder had eyes for one thing only.
His free-kick from 25 yards was among the best of a sparkling collection, aimed plum into Alphonse Areola’s top-right corner, and that made the outcome all the more astonishing. Areola somehow managed to claw the ball on to the angle of post and bar, Che Adams somehow failing to connect with the rebound as it bounced down. In a split-second Fulham had been blessed by a save-of-the-season contender and a glaring miss.
“We had the bigger chances,” Hasenhüttl said, pointing to disallowed second-half efforts from Long and Theo Walcott. The latter was chalked off after a tight, but correct, VAR call against the provider Adams. By the end, though, the result felt entirely correct.