It was the most enthralling of goalless draws you're likely to see as Fulham and Southampton cancelled each other out on a chilly afternoon of festive football at Craven Cottage by the Thames.
With chances few and far between in the first half, the visitors had the ball in the back of the net on two occasions in the second only for both to be ruled out for offside, while the Cottagers also failed to convert a handful of opportunities to take the lead. On balance, the draw probably represents just rewards for both.
The result sees Fulham remain in 18th in the table, one point off Brighton & Hove Albion, while Southampton drop down to 8th due to results elsewhere.
Story of the game
Managing from the comfort of his own home after one of his household members tested positive for Covid-19 in the week, Scott Parker made three adjustments to the team that drew at Newcastle United last weekend. Mario Lemina — ineligible against his parent club — made way for Harrison Reed, a former Saint himself, while club captain Tom Cairney was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek on the right of attack.
Ivan Cavaleiro regained his place in the starting 11 having suffered a knock in the warm-up last weekend, with Aleksandar Mitrovic dropping to the bench, and Joachim Andersen started again after Fulham successfully appealed his straight red card at St James' Park.
The absence of several key players saw visiting manager Ralph Hasenhuttl forced into four changes. Oriol Romeu was unavailable though suspension so summer signing Ibrahima Diallo made his first league start of the campaign, while Jack Stephens replaced the injured Jannik Vestergaard and Adam Armstrong took Moussa Djenepo's spot on the wing.
Southampton's biggest miss, though, was top scorer Danny Ings, unable to feature due to a hamstring tweak sustained last weekend against Manchester City; Shane Long replaced the 28-year old for his first start of the campaign.
It was a cagey start, with neither side able to muster any meaningful possession in the opening stages and stray passes aplenty. Southampton did look threatening when the sheer pace of Theo Walcott sent Tosin Adarabioyo tumbling on five minutes, but Ola Aina managed to bail his teammate out.
Fulham had raced out of the traps; a lively run from Loftus-Cheek gave him the chance to set Ademola Lookman free to run into the box, but instead of offloading the ball to Antonee Robinson darting down his left, the winger tried his own luck at goal only to see his effort deflected into the grateful grasp of Alex McCarthy.
The Cottagers should certainly have taken the lead on the 25 minute mark, following a period of midfield stalemate. Great work down the right from Bobby Decordova-Reid eventually saw the wing-back cross into the box for Lookman at the back post. The 23-year old set himself but saw the opportunity to shoot vanish; he then set-up the onrushing Zambo Anguissa, however the Cameroonian skewed his effort, failing to trouble the Saints' goalkeeper.
This game was opening up. Set-piece master James Ward-Prowse arrowed a vicious free-kick at goal from 25 yards; it crashed against the crossbar with Alphonse Areola beaten and Fulham eventually managed to clear after Che Adams failed to adjust his footing to convert the rebound.
Evenly-matched is an understatement; there was nothing between these sides, a thought reflected by just three registered attempts in the first-half — the lowest total of any Premier League match so far this season — despite it being a perfectly watchable game with plenty of intriguing individual duels.
Something somewhere needed to give for the deadlock to be broken, but with their respective hindrances, which side would strike first was anyone's guess.
Once again, it was Fulham who had the first opportunity of the half. A lobbed pass from Aina was controlled sumptuously by Lookman on the edge of the area, who then turned to feed Robinson in the box, but pressure from Kyle Walker-Peters proved enough to prevent any threat to McCarthy's goal.
Moments later, the ever-lively Robinson dispossessed Walcott 20 yards from his own goal before embarking on a lung-bursting run down the flank. The full-back crossed for Ivan Cavaleiro lurking on the penalty spot, but the Portuguese forward failed to direct his header goalwards; with no defenders challenging him, Cavaleiro should have given his side the lead.
The midfield battle was especially fascinating, and ultimately looked the reason as to why these sides had failed to break each other down. They both started resorting to long-range efforts in the hope one might somehow find its way across the goal-line; in the space of 60 seconds, Reed's pot-shot deflected into McCarthy's hands before Long's half-volley sailed just over the crossbar.
Desperation from either set of players edged up a notch as the game entered the final 20 minutes; the cries for some inventiveness were getting louder and louder. Cavaleiro showed it when he brilliantly dummied away from Stephens to latch onto Aina's through-ball, but the forward's cross was cleared by Jan Bednarek.
Southampton thought they'd taken that elusive lead when Long latched onto Ryan Bertrand's cross and lobbed past Areola, but the visitors' celebrations were cut short by the linesman's flag. A cruel decision with the Saints already wheeling away in jubilation, but the correct one nonetheless.
The first substitution of the match came 83 minutes in — indicating the caution of either manager here — when Mitrovic replaced Decordova-Reid with Cavaleiro moving to the wing-back position. It was a bold move from Fulham's management team, but one you felt needed to be made for the balance to tip.
It looked to have tipped in favour of the visitors when Walcott powered Adams' cross home from close range, but VAR confirmed a second Saints goal would be ruled out for offside.
Southampton certainly appeared the most likely to find that dramatic late winner, but Fulham came closest in stoppage time when Mitrovic poked the ball just wide of near post with McCarthy beaten — that was how the game would finish
Takeaways from the match
Parker's absence does nothing to diminish Fulham's impressive energy
The Cottagers stayed true to the philosophies of their manager despite being without his presence on the touchline; they pressed high, passed incisively and ran their hearts out, visibly no less inspired than they would have been in usual circumstances.
Fulham could have won this game against difficult opposition and, although they remain in the relegation zone for now, their performances continue to look worthy of a good shot at survival this season.
Southampton's attack impotent without Ings
It would be unfair to say the Saints are totally reliant on their top scorer for goals, but Ings' all-round game is crucial to their efforts in the final third and his contribution was a big miss for them here, with less of both hold-up play and running in behind at Southampton's attacks always seemed to stop after the midfield stage.
One can only feel it would have been a different match had the striker been involved, though the visitors were extremely solid in defence and gave McCarthy a largely trouble-free afternoon by the Thames. It wasn't the worst result for either side, and certainly not for Southampton given their notable absentees.
Fulham: Areola; Aina, Andersen, Adarabioyo; Decordova-Reid (Mitrovic 83'), Anguissa, Reed, Robinson; Loftus-Cheek, Cavaleiro, Lookman (Kebano 89').
Subs not used: Rodak, Odoi, Hector, Ream, Bryan, Cairney, Kamara.
Southampton: McCarthy; Walker-Peters, Stephens, Bednarek, Bertrand; Armstrong (Djenepo 93'), Ward-Prowse, Diallo, Walcott; Adams, Long (N'Lundulu 91').
Subs not used: Forster, Valery, Salisu, Vokins, Smallbone, Obafemi.
Following this draw, Fulham travel to the north of the capital to face Tottenham Hotspur in midweek.
Meanwhile, Southampton return to their home of St Mary's on Tuesday when West Ham United will be their visitors.