Fulham 2 Southampton 0
Louis Saha proved why he is said to be target for Manchester United with both goals for Fulham in a comfortable victory over fellow European hopefuls Southampton, who were completely outplayed at Loftus Road.
Saha struck in the 19th minute before clinching victory with a 62nd-minute penalty to take his tally to 12 for the season and leave Fulham fans wondering how much longer their club can resist the reported advances of the Premiership champions.
Victory gave Fulham only their fourth win in their last 11 league matches, lifting them back above the Saints in the table, and brought Southampton’s three-match winning league run to a shuddering halt in a fixture they have failed to win for 56 years.
But Saha’s scintillating performance, which completely overshadowed an uncharacteristically quiet James Beattie, was the perfect advertisement of his talents to Manchester United, a club he claims playing for would be “a dream”.
This was a clash of two sides with lofty ambitions, but only the trickery shown by Saha and his provider Steed Malbranque lifted the match above a disappointing show of misplaced passing and niggly tackles.
Marian Pahars was the surprise omission from Gordon Strachan’s squad.
The Latvian forward is just back from a long-term injury and was expected to take his place in an unchanged line-up after scoring against Portsmouth.
In defence, Danny Higginbotham continued to deputise for the absent Graeme Le Saux, while midfielder Rory Delap failed to recover from a twisted ankle in time.
Sean Davis missed out with a hamstring injury for Fulham, who also had Mark Pembridge absent with a calf injury.
There were places at the back for Alain Goma and Martin Djetou with Jon Harley and Andy Melville dropping to the bench.
Back-to-back defeats to Leeds and Chelsea had done nothing to dent Fulham’s confidence, and they made the early running, forcing three quick corners.
Neil McCann and Michael Svensson both had efforts fly yards wide at the other end for the visitors shortly afterwards.
Saha had looked largely anonymous until he found himself in the clear on 19 minutes.
Malbranque played a neat one-two with Lee Clark which foxed a static visiting defence and the Frenchman then played in his compatriot, who made no mistake with a left-foot finish into the far corner.
He should have doubled the home side’s lead moments later when Luis Boa Morte’s low centre found him in space again, but this time Saha failed to make the right contact and the chance went begging.
Suddenly it was all Fulham, and Clark warmed Edwin van der Sar’s hands with a 25-yard shot from Saha’s knock-down.
Strachan declined to make changes after the break, but Fulham were immediately back into their stride as the rain began to fall, Saha hitting a 20-yard effort wide of the far post.
He was in again moments later, shrugging off the weak challenge of Dodd, but his dangerous pull-back eluded everyone and flashed harmlessly across the face of goal.
Strachan had seen enough and introduced Kevin Philips at the expense of a quiet Brett Ormerod, but Saints were chasing shadows.
When Malbranque found Saha with a stunning 30-yard pass and the Frenchman controlled with his chest before striking a right-foot volley, everyone inside Loftus Road expected a second goal, but Finnish international Antti Niemi pulled off a spectacular save, and Junichi Inamoto blasted the rebound over.
Southampton finally tested Van der Sar on the hour-mark, Phillips letting fly from 25 yards, but the Dutchman saved low at his far post.
Moments later referee Dermot Gallagher pointed to the spot when Boa Morte was tripped by Chris Marsden.
Saha stepped up and fired his penalty down the middle, finding the target after the ball ricocheted through Niemi’s legs.
Malbranque deserved a goal for his efforts having pulled the strings all afternoon, but he contrived to miss from three yards after Knight’s header down from a corner, scooping the ball over the crossbar with an outstretched boot.