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Toon army served a dose of reality by Fulham

HEAD BOY: Matt Smith (no.9) scores Fulham's goal

HAVING MASTERMINDED a historic win in the Champions League with Liverpool in 2005, you get the feeling that Rafa Benitez may sense returning Newcastle United to the Premier League at the first time of asking will feel like a similar achievement on the basis of their performance against Fulham on the opening ceremony of the world’s most unpredictable league.

It is widely expected that the newly-relegated club will be the runaway leaders in the Championship this term, and that they will destroy everything within their sights. But that was far from the case, as this Newcastle team seemed shell-shocked by what they were coming up against following a spirited performance from Fulham.

Matt Smith returned from the doldrums to remind supporters that he is more than capable of filling the goalscoring burden left by Ross McCormack. The striker scored the solitary goal of the game, and the 50th of his career, to get his campaign up and running.

The visitors were denied two stonewall penalties, which perhaps also had a bearing on their performance. But this rude awakening will serve as a reminder to Bentiez that life in the Championship will be far from a walk in the park.

Upon arrival at Craven Cottage you got the feeling that there was great optimism from the home fans that this season would bring more hope in their quest for promotion. The past two years have been frustrating for Fulham having been involved in two relegation battles since dropping to the second tier of English football.

It almost had that first day back at school feel to it; with the home fans boisterous in their support to the team, but it was not long until the preponderance of Newcastle fans started to make their voices heard.

The 7,000 supporters who travelled to the game were vocal throughout the first half, and their support started to have a palpable effect on their team’s performance. Surging down the right flank, unchallenged, Vurnon Anita floated a long ball towards Ayoze Perez, who had beaten his marker Denis Odoi, and was subsequently brought down by the defender on the edge of the area, with the referee issuing Fulham’s summer signing a yellow card.

With the free-kick in an inviting area, Perez spun a golden chance and on second viewing the opportunity perhaps seemed better suited for Matt Richie’s left foot, with the Spaniard failing to navigate his strike over the Fulham wall.

On the basis of their performance, the hosts played like a team affronted by the suggestion that they had been overly reliant on the departed McCormack. Floyd Ayite caught the eye and made a number of promising runs, at times heavily testing Janmaat, which resulted in the full-back and Anita doubling up to repel the threat of Ayite.

Having enticed Bentiez to stay at the helm following their relegation from the Premier League last term, for the first time in seven years, it has been evident that the galvanising manager has been stamping his own imprimatur on the side.

Convincing Richie to be bereft of top-flight football for one year shows the appeal of working under the Spaniard. The former Bournemouth midfielder effortlessly wriggled in between the Fulham defence and whipped in a ball towards the penalty area only for his cross to be blocked by the arm of Ryan Tunnicliffe. But the away side were left to bemoan the non-award of a penalty.

Following the departure of McCormack to Aston Villa, this presented an opportunity for the likes of Smith to showcase why he merits a regular starting berth. The striker was making his 14th start in two seasons for Slavisa Jokanovic’s side and he took his chance with aplomb thanks to poor marking from Newcastle. Smith angled an expertly-weighted header past Matz Sells, following Tom Cairney’s corner-kick, promoting the Craven Cottage faithful to indulge in the rendition of ‘’we are top of the league”.

Whatever Bentiez said at the break had a discernible impact on his team’s performance. They looked more encouraging going forward and it seemed like Gayle had been instructed to split the opposition’s defence in order to create more space. Anita pierced through Fulham’s porous defence down the left channel and threaded a pass into the six-yard box where Richie’s low strike was saved by the legs of David Button. It was an encouraging spell of play by the visitors.

On the eve of the hour mark, the ineffectual Jack Colback was brought off in place of Rolando Aarons to aid Newcastle’s quest to once more unlock the home side’s defence. Within minutes of entering the field the promising midfielder unfathomably failed to finish off a team move having hurriedly prodded his shot wide of goal from close range.

That missed opportunity injected urgency back into Fulham, and full-back Scott Malone combined intelligently with Ayite before seeing his strike at goal flash wide.

The Newcastle United players were incandescent with rage once more when the referee, Sam Hooper, once more waved away justifiable appeals for a penalty.

The arm of Thomas Kalas blocked Richie’s brisk shot and this was rather congruous in things not going the away side’s way. If Benitez ever needed a reminder that life in the Championship would be tough, then this was it.

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