Aston Villa eased the pressure on under-fire boss Steven Gerrard with a 1-0 win over Southampton on Friday as the Premier League returned following the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
The English top-flight was back in action for the first time since the Queen died aged 96 on September 8, with last weekend’s games postponed as a mark of respect.
This Sunday’s matches between Manchester United and Leeds and Chelsea and Liverpool, as well as Saturday’s Brighton versus Crystal Palace fixture, have also been cancelled due to policing issues before the Queen’s funeral on Monday.
Ahead of kick-off at Villa Park and the City Ground, where Fulham beat Nottingham Forest 3-2, there was a minute’s silence followed by the national anthem in a tribute to the Queen that will be repeated at the rest of the weekend’s matches.
There was also applause from fans at both stadiums in the 70th minute to mark the monarch’s 70 years on the throne.
While the Queen’s death cast a long shadow over the Premier League’s return, Villa manager Gerrard could not afford to be distracted as he fights to save his job.
Jacob Ramsey’s first half winner against Southampton was a huge boost for Gerrard, whose side started the day one place above the relegation zone.
Villa’s first win in five league games came after an impressive draw with champions Manchester City in their last match two weeks ago.
For only the second time in their last 11 matches, dating back to last season, Villa finished with three points as they benefitted from a first clean-sheet in 12 games.
“It’s a big victory. It wasn’t pretty or stylish but, with where we were in the league, we knew we had to do it in a pragmatic way,” Gerrard said.
“I’m really proud of the boys’ effort. In football, you have to grind and fight.
“It’s been a tough period, but I’ve wanted step forward and protect my players. We’ve accepted a lot of criticism and it’s about reacting and that’s what we have done tonight.”
Gerrard restored Philippe Coutinho to his starting line-up and the former Liverpool forward played a key role in the much-needed victory.
Coutinho was the catalyst for Villa’s 41st-minute opener. The Brazilian’s header forced Southampton keeper Gavin Bazunu to concede a corner.
From Coutinho’s set-piece, Ollie Watkins’ header was tipped onto the bar by Bazunu, with the rebound falling for Ramsey to blast into the roof of the net from six yards.
The goal survived a VAR check for offside against Ramsey as the midfielder was played onside by Mohammed Salisu’s touch on the ball.
Fulham on the rise
For a sixth successive match, Southampton had conceded first and they barely mustered a response as Villa held firm.
Southampton’s dismal run of 13 defeats in their last 19 league games will put pressure on their boss Ralph Hasenhuttl heading into the international break.
Forest and Fulham, two of the sides promoted from the Championship last season, have had contrasting fortunes.
Fulham’s unexpectedly strong start has lifted them above Liverpool and Chelsea into sixth place.
But second-bottom Forest have suffered four successive defeats and conceded 12 goals in their last three games.
Taiwo Awoniyi put Forest in front after 11 minutes as the Nigeria striker rose to head home at the far post after Morgan Gibbs-White’s corner was flicked into his path by Ryan Yates.
Fulham’s blistering second half display was sparked by Tosin Adarabioyo, whose towering header from Willian’s corner brought his team level in the 54th minute.
Marco Silva’s side went ahead three minutes later as Joao Palhinha rifled into the top corner from 20 yards.
Harrison Reed grabbed Fulham’s third in six minutes with a clinical finish from Bobby Decordova-Reid’s cross on the hour.
Lewis O’Brien reduced the deficit from Jesse Lingard’s assist in the 77th minute, but there was no late escape for struggling Forest.