Everton were left clinging on to their first win in four games as a combination of complacency and fatigue were almost their undoing in the second half against Fulham.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin grabbed a brace and Abdoulaye Doucouré netted his first goal for the Toffees as Carlo Ancelotti's men cruised into a 3-1 half-time lead.
However, Fulham came back strongly as the visitors sat back and finished the contest pressing hard for an equaliser after Ruben Loftus-Cheek had made it 3-2 with 20 minutes to go.
Playing with a back three that included Ben Godfrey instead of Mason Holgate who dropped back to the bench, Everton started on the front foot and scored the fastest goal of the Premier League season thus far. Richarlison was back in the line-up after serving a three-game ban and the difference he makes in attack was in evidence from the off as he drove to the byline and cut the ball across goal where it deflected off a defender's leg onto Calvert-Lewin and it bobbled in.
The England striker almost scored a similar goal in the 12th minute as right wing-back Alex Iwobi's dangerous cross came off Ola Aina while a minute later at the other end, Bobby Decordova-Reid scuffed a great chance to bring Fulham level wide of goal.
The Cottagers got their goal just a couple of minutes later as Everton's defensive fallibilities were exposed again and Tom Cairney played Decordova-Reid in behind Yerry Mina and the forward rapped a shot past Pickford to make it 1-1.
Match Reaction Podcast
Calvert-Lewin had the ball in the net in the 18th minute but it was rightly chalked off for offside and Richarlison forced a good save from Alphonse Areola with a slow shot searching out the bottom corner before a nicely-worked move yielded the Toffees' second goal.
After more good work by Iwobi down the right, James Rodriguez fed the ball wide to Lucas Digne on the opposite flank and his low cross into the six-yard box was turned in by Calvert-Lewin to put Everton back in front just before the half-hour mark.
10 minutes before the break it was 3-1. Sustained pressure from Everton ended with Rodriguez again finding Digne and he sent a lovely dinked cross into the centre where Doucoure arrived unmarked to plant a header past Ariola.
It probably should have been 4-1 shortly before the break but Richarlison mis-kicked a gilt-edged chance in front of goal and James forced the keeper into a parried save in injury time with a rasping left-footer.
The second half was a far less convincing and more sloppy affair from Everton which allowed Scot Parker's men to grow in confidence, particularly after Loftus-Cheek and Aleksander Mitrovic were introduced off the bench. Ivan Cavaleiro tested Jordan Pickford with an awkward shot from 25 yards in the 61st minute but the Portuguese would get the perfect opportunity to pull Fulham back to 3-2 when Godfrey clumsily tripped Loftus-Cheek and gave away a penalty in the 68th minute.
Cavaleiro slipped as he went to strike the ball, however, and kicked the ball off his standing foot and it looped over the crossbar. Another purposeful drive towards the Toffees' uncertain back line ended with Lookman driving inside past Digne and centring hard to Loftus-Cheek whose shot kicked up off Mina and flew past Pickford to make it 3-2.
Ancelotti withdrew the tiring Rodriguez with 15 minutes left in favour of more midfield solidity in the form of Tom Davies and then took off the disconsolate Richarlison for Gylfi Sigurdsson a couple of minutes later and while Fulham huffed and probed for an equaliser, Everton hung on for three important points.
Everton stormed into an early lead to get their Premier League campaign back on the rails following three straight defeats that wrecked their 100% start to the season. But they so nearly gave it away with a very poor second half when Fulham missed a crucial penalty.
Iwobi starts along with Richarlison, Godfrey returning to reprise his role at right-back instead of Kenny, who is not even in the squad. Holgate and Gomes on the bench along with Sigurdsson and Bernard, none of whom have performed to anything like the required level in recent games.
For the hosts, both former Blues, Antonee Robinson and Ademola Lookman are in the starting line-up at Craven Cottage.
Fulham kicked off with the yellow winter ball, Everton playing in their second strip of yellow and dark blue and Richarlison's first contribution was massively impressive, dancing through and crossing neatly for Calvert-Lewin to nudge it in after a very fortuitous deflection.
A great start for Everton but Fulham were distraught and started pressing determinedly, including some unwelcome attention for Richarlison from.... Pickford's up-and-under clearance came down on Keane's arm and Fulham won a dangerous free-kick that Richarlison headed behind for a corner that came to nothing.And Calvert-Lewin looked like he could have got closer to a good ball in from Iwobi but seemed to take his eye off the ball at the critical moment. At the other end, Lookman crossed in well, and Reid screwed his shot wide the goal gaping.
Everton should have had a second when Robinson gifted the ball to Richarlison but he was immediately closed down, with neither Calvert-Lewin nor Doucouré able to take advantage.
Meanwhile, Everton's defence were looking decidedly soft and Reid got past Mina very easily and beat Pickford very easily for the equalizer.
Calvert-Lewin did get the ball in the net at the other end off a great ball in from Iwobi but he had strayed a foot or two offside and the goal was ruled out. Ricarlison then drove forward, a nice one-two followed by a weak shot when he should have blasted it into the roof of the net, and it was an easy save for Areola.
Everton attacked again, thanks to a fine crossfield ball from James but could not create a real chance. It was a very lively game, with Fulham taking a couple of potshots that flew over or wide.
But Everton then put together a fantastic piece of movement, starting with a brilliant run from Iwobi, Rodriguez masterfully out to Digne who crossed back in perfectly for Calvert-Lewin to tap home with a very measured strike. VAR looked at it and Calvert-Lewin's hand was offside... but they allowed it to stand — as it deserved to from the perspective of sheer quality.
Some really fine passing all over the field ended in another great build-up, Rodriguez again out to Digne who crossed right on to Doucouré's noggin and he could not miss. Everton looking very impressive now.
Fulham were trying everything they could to get close but, when it broke down, Everton were countering at pace. Richarlison wafted at and completely missed another lovely cross from Digne that was perfectly placed for him to hammer home.
Iwobi crossed too close to Areola when a more measured delivery could have seen another chance created. But the game really was lively, the play going from end to end with good pace and lively passing until Everton played keep-ball for the last 2 minutes until Rodriguez produced a great strike that Areola saved very well. The end to a great half of entertaining football.
The game restarted with the same level of enterprise from both sides, Richarlison getting in a good shot on a free-kick cross from Digne — he should have put a lot more on his shot rather than trying to glance it past Aerola — then Lookman advancing well and crossing right through the Everton defence.
Calvert-Lewin did well to win an early ball in midfield ut tried to beat Areola form 40 yards out on the follow-through and did not really get hold of it properly. If anything, though, Everton were playing more conservatively, not looking to take too many risks as Scott Parker made a couple of changes for the home side before the hour mark.
Fulham continued to play some determined and lively stuff, Caveleiro getting a sight on goal but Pickford able to save. Robinson was then allowed to run through the channel as Everton absorbed a lot of pressure but only advanced slowly and gave the ball up too easily when the did gain possession.
But the one-way traffic finally paid off for Fulham after a poor James giveaway, Godfrey giving away a penalty that Cavelerio slips on his standing foot and launches high over the bar for a brilliant 3 points!!!
But Fulham, undeterred advanced again with some drive through Lookman who beat Digne all and down and cut the ball back to Loftus-Cheek whose shot spun off Mina and over Pickford into the net! What a crazy game, the Blues on the edge of playing a terrible price for not maintaining the pressure and the pace of a game that should have been well and truly put to bed.
Rodriguez had faded and Davies came on in his place with 17 mins left. But was that enough to explain how Everton were on the verge of throwing away two and possibly three hard-earned points? Richarlison reluctantly made way for Sigurdsson, with Ancelotti determined to hold on at all costs.
From a tremendous position of impressive dominance, Everton had totally squandered the initiative and were now inviting the home side to do their worst. It was simply horrible to watch how utterly incompetent the Everton players looked at times, giving the ball away on the rare occasion they were able to interrupt the lively Fulham play. Was there no-one on the Everton team who could take some degree of control into the last 10 minutes?
Digne, who had been crossing at will, found his attempts blocked, winning a corner that Sigurdsson finally delivered straight into the welcoming arms of Areola, and Fulham immediately on the attack again.
Everton finally got some meaningful possession in the Fulham half but resolutely refused to do anything by way of meaningful attack, just burning up the minutes in the hope of denying Fulham the possession they needed to score the equalizer, as the game entered 5 added minutes.
It will go down with some as "good game management" but the second half really was a disgraceful change in tactics from Everton who should have been rampant in driving home their advantage, rather than being reduced to living on the edge of giving up an equalizer.
Scorers: De Cordova-Reid (15'), Loftus-Cheek (70'); Calvert-Lewin (1', 29'), Doucouré (35')
Fulham (4-2-3-1): Areola; Aina, Adarabioyo, Andersen, Robinson [Y:56'], Reed, Lemina (69' Anguissa); Lookman, Cairney (58' Mitrovic), Cavaleiro; Reid [Y:] (58' Loftus-Cheek).
Subs not Used: Rodak, Odoi, Ream, Bryan.
Everton (4-4-2): Pickford; Godfrey, Keane, Mina, Digne; Iwobi, Doucouré, Allan, James (74' Davies); Calvert-Lewin, Richarlison (76' Sigurdsson).
Subs not Used: Olsen, Holgate, Gomes, Bernard, Tosun.
Referee: Andy Madley
VAR: Lee Mason
With the final international break out the way, Everton are back in action hoping to get their Premier League campaign back on the rails following three straight defeats that wrecked their 100% start to the season.
The Blues travel to Fulham on Sunday to begin another three-match stretch that could define their season — with eminently winnable games against Leeds and Burnley to follow, Carlo Ancelotti's side could either reassert their European qualification credentials or find themselves still beleaguered by questions and uncertainty over the best formation and personnel.
Everton went into this latest pause for internationals with fitness concerns over Seamus Coleman (and had those concerns fully realised when he was forced to withdraw from the Ireland squad because of his troublesome hamstring; he is ruled out of the trip to Craven Cottage), a patently unfit James Rodriguez, a midfield selection dilemma, and a deepening issue over how to win without Richarlison in the line-up.
The Brazilian is finally eligible again after serving a three-game suspension and escaping injury when he was caught by an ugly, late tackle by Edinson Cavani in a World Cup qualifier against Uruguay and his presence and the extra problems he poses for opposition teams who have only had to worry about keeping James quiet will be a welcome sight.
Although he largely ignored his team's attacking limitations in recent games, Ancelotti refused to blame his team's run of losses on Richarlison's absence, saying in his pre-match press conference yesterday:
"We didn't lose because Richarlison was not there. If he was a defender I can say 'Okay, we lost power there' but he is a striker and we didn't defend properly in the last three games. But he is a really important player for us."
Rodriguez, meanwhile, is unlikely to be at full capacity, however, after playing two 90-minute games for Colombia and that will be a concern for Ancelotti and it might force a rethink on how he deploys the former Real Madrid midfielder. The Italian addressed James's best position but didn't appear to concede that he might need to relieve him of his defensive responsibilities and move him into a more central role.
"His position is as a No 10. It doesn't matter if he's on the right or in the centre. His position is in front,” Ancelotti said, intimating that he is comfortable with James nominally playing right midfield but with a license to roam. Of course, that has led to a lack of cover down the right flank and a continuation of that won't help Jonjoe Kenny who is likely to be handed right-back duties in Coleman's absence.
Then there is central midfield where Gylfi Sigurdsson's performance against Manchester United in place of the below-par André Gomes left plenty to be desired and, with Jean-Philippe Gbamin the presumptive solution as a holding midfielder should he be able to regain and retain full fitness but still three weeks away, it means that Ancelotti will need to maintain his quest for balance and reliable cover for the defence from his existing personnel.
Fabian Delph is fit again after missing the United clash with another niggle but it remains to be seen if he will be given a starting berth. Yerry Mina is also in contention again after sitting out the last game to accommodate Mason Holgate's return to the starting XI.
Though condemned by pundits as being doomed for the drop back to the Championship this season, Fulham come into this game sitting above the relegation zone having picked up their first victory recently, a 2-0 home win over West Bromwich Albion.
They might have earned a draw at West Ham in their last outing as well had former Blue, Ademola Lookman, not been made to look a fool by Lukasz Fabianski who easily saved his last-minute attempted “Panenka” penalty that allowed West Ham to hold on for a 1-0 victory.
With Lookman providing plenty of thrust from attacking midfield and more consistency than he showed during his time with the Blues, Scot Parker's side have been showing signs of growing into their task of trying to remain in the top flight. With Everton's recent struggles, this won't be an easy fixture by any means at a stadium that hasn't been a happy hunting ground for them.
A win, though, could put Everton back into the top-four mix and re-inject some confidence into a team that has visibly lost its mojo lately.
Kick-off: 12pm, Sunday 22 November 2020 on BBC One & BBC iPlayer
Referee: Andy Madley
VAR: Lee Mason
Last Time: Fulham 2 - 0 Everton (April 2019)
Predicted Line-up: Pickford, Kenny, Mina, Holgate, Digne, Allan, Doucouré, Gomes, Rodriguez, Richarlison, Calvert-Lewin