At the end, there were two delighted managers at Craven Cottage – but Fulham's René Meulensteen was still distressed. Mauricio Pochettino in the visitors' dugout and Roy Hodgson in the stands revelled in the excellence of Southampton, which was crowned with goals by the England trio of Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert and Jay Rodriguez.
That augurs well for the Saints' European ambitions and perhaps also for England's World Cup hopes, but certainly not for Fulham's Premier League survival prospects.
"This is the hardest challenge I've ever faced in football," admitted Meulensteen, who has been trying to transform Fulham since taking charge in early December and is all too aware that the change may not come quick enough. Games are running out and Fulham, fixtures in the top flight since 2001, are not yet moving in the right direction.
"I was hoping so much going into this game," said Meulensteen, shaking his head at the way Southampton snatched the points. Yet the afternoon began full of promise for the hosts.
After splurging on reinforcements in January, three of their new players – Kostas Mitroglou, Jonny Heitinga and Larnell Cole – were paraded before kick-off, while another two, Lewis Holtby and William Kvist, went straight into the starting lineup. Kvist, a loanee from Stuttgart, made a particularly encouraging early impact, proving a potent presence in midfield. With Steve Sidwell and Scott Parker on patrol alongside him, Fulham had a solid centre that frustrated Victor Wanyama and Morgan Schneiderlin, both of whom were booked in the first half as they strained to keep parity in the middle.
The barrier erected by the home side initially kept Southampton's most inventive player, Lallana, away from the action and Fulham's solidity gradually seemed to beget a confidence that inspired the team going forward.
Fulham's first threats came from corners. Dan Burn nodded over in the ninth minute before Brede Hangeland went even closer, his header being brilliantly pawed away by Artur Boruc. Then Fulham began to create chances from open play.
The move they conjured in the 35th minute showed the rising feelgood factor. Holtby flitted in from the left and zipped a pass in to Parker, who found Darren Bent with an artful flick. Boruc had to match that brilliance to turn away the striker's volley. "We got some really good opportunities, but we didn't take them," groaned Meulensteen. "Boruc was outstanding. It's so important you give yourself a platform with something to hold on to but we couldn't do that." Mitroglu could be ready to start next week and the pressure will be on the £12.5m striker to convert such chances. Here, however, they were soon made to regret their misses.
Unable to pick a way through Fulham, Southampton's only chances in the first half had come from crosses from the wings, a weak header from Schneiderlin and a mistimed one from Rodriguez being as close as they had come to scoring. But Pochettino adjusted his midfield at half-time, introducing Jack Cork for Wanyama, and Southampton started to get the upper hand in the middle.
Lallana gave a warning of his growing menace when he fired off a snapshot from 20 yards out, forcing a save from Maarten Stekelenburg. Then, in the 64th minute, Cork won possession on halfway to launch the move that gave the visitors the lead. After a rapid salvo of passes from Cork, Schneiderlin and Lambert, Lallana skedaddled into the box to crack a low shot into the net from 10 yards out.
Suddenly Fulham's fragility was exposed. They wilted meekly. Within six minutes, Southampton inflicted further damage. Nathaniel Clyne raced down the right wing and exchanged passes with Steven Davis before sending a perfect cross to Lambert, who swept the ball into the net from 10 yards out.
Five minutes later, Southampton made it 3-0. Lambert launched a swift counter-attack with an exquisite 50-yard pass to Rodriguez, who applied a suitably fine finish, curling the ball into the top corner from 15 yards out.
"You could see the impact the first goal had," said Meulensteen. "It was like a boxer that keeps getting knocked down. It was disastrous to concede two more goals in the next 10 minutes."
Fulham have now conceded 53 goals in the league this season, a toll that could prove ruinous if they ever manage to haul themselves level on points with the team in 17th place.
"We can't look at what other teams do. It is about us," said Meulensteen. "We can't feel sorry for ourselves and just lie down. Hopefully the new faces will bring something to the team and liven the place up."