The morning headlines will make much of Dimitar Berbatov’s 32nd birthday. The Bulgarian stooped to head in Fulham’s opener, sparkled far more against West Ham than he had done for several weeks in a Fulham shirt, and – in a sprint to try and secure possession as Martin Jol’s side sought to cling on to a vital victory – sustained a hamstring injury that is likely to rule him out with another renunion with Manchester United on Saturday evening.
Whilst Berbatov was the main attraction, dropping into midfield to link the play in his usual languid fashion, Fulham finally had a bit of thrust up front and guile behind their laconic forward. It was the Colombian Hugo Rodallega, who has produced only in patches since arriving on a free transfer from Wigan in the summer, who provided a timely injection of belief after the home side had threatened to throw away yet another winning position. Rodallega somehow outjumped three West Ham defenders to nod Damien Duff’s cross past Jussi Jaaskelainen barely a minute after Berbatov had let Kevin Nolan stroll onto Mark Noble’s quickly-taken free-kick and lash home the equaliser.
Fulham’s performance was far from first class and they were fortunate to take the lead when they did as any one of three attackers might have been gflagged offside from Duff’s dangerous free-kick. James Tomkins appealed in vain for the decision as Berbatov squeezed his header in from the tightest of angles at the far post before nearly colliding with an advertising hoarding at the Putney End. The Bulgarian looked across at the assistant before being enveloped by joyous team-mates and the television replays suggested he was at least a yard offside.
A fiesty midfield battle between Giorgis Karagounis and Mohamed Diame raged for much of the hour that Fulham’s Greek veteran was on the field, although the Senegalese midfielder was more incesed with the rough nature of Steve Sidwell’s robust challenge that earned him a booking. In front of those two, Bryan Ruiz offered glimpses of creativity but was visibly tiring by the time that Jol opted to introduce Ashkan Dejagah and the Iranian winger’s pace – as Fulham reverted to a more traditional 4-4-2 – unsettled the Hammers’ defence. An even midfield battle saw much of the home side’s first half threat provided by Berbatov, whilst Nolan nodded the visitors’ best chance inexplicably wide from an inviting Diame cross.
Sam Allardyce threw on Carlton Cole and Andy Carroll, who had terrorised Fulham on his West Ham debut back in August, in an attempt to salvage a point. The double change gave the visitors a far more physical presence up front, underscoring Jol’s decision to replace Aaron Hughes with Philippe Senderos. That move looked far from sensible when Senderos squandered possession in the Fulham box, allowing Nolan a low shot from an acute angle – and the hosts were indebted to a sprawling save from Mark Schwarzer. The Australian goalkeeper also saved smartly from Carroll shortly after his introduction – but it was Fulham who found a further goal in stoppage time.
Mladen Petric, who had spurned a glorious chance with a tame side-footed finish moments after replacing Berbatov, displayed his predatory instincts by following in a Rodallega header and forcing a shot goalwards after the grounded Jaaskelainen had parried the initial effort. The Croatian’s shot rolled off the post and over the line via Joey O’Brien as the defender desperately tried to clear the danger. This vital victory was only Fulham’s second of the new year – and lifted Jol’s side above the Hammers and into twelve in the table.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Riether, J.A. Riise, Senderos, Hangeland; Karagounis (Baird 66), Sidwell; Ruiz (Dejagah 66), Berbatov (Petric 78), Duff; Rodallega. Subs (not used): Etheridge, Hughes, Frimpong, Davies.
GOALS: Berbatov (10), Rodallega (49), O’Brien (o.g. 90).
WEST HAM UNITED (4-2-3-1): Jaaskelainen; Demel (Taylor 67), Tomkins, Reid, O’Brien; Diame, Noble; Nolan, Jarvis, J. Cole (Carroll 76); Chamakah (C. Cole 56). Subs (not used): Henderson, Pogatetz, O’Neil, Vaz Te.
GOAL: Nolan (48).
REFEREE: Chris Foy (St. Helen’s).