This was some game for Setanta to show as their late offering from the Premier League. Manchester City, armed with Thai millions and Sven-Goran Eriksson in the dugout, would have come to Craven Cottage confident of taking all three points. To say that very nearly did, only denied by a late strike from substitute Danny Murphy whose equaliser had more than a hint of offside about it, only tells half the story. Lawrie Sanchez saluted his side’s spirit to come from behind and grab a point but he was slightly wistful at failing to claim all through.
It was a gloriously open game, played in majestic September early evening sunshine down by the River Thames. Sanchez had made much of being the manager who shocked Eriksson when England slipped up in Belfast last year and he fielded four of the Northern Ireland heroes from that night at Windsor Park this afternoon. Eriksson might have got a real sense of deja-vu when David Healy, England’s tormentor in the World Cup goalkeeper, burst onto a long pass from his compatriot Chris Baird, although Richard Dunne did superbly to dig City out of a hole.
It was merely a brief stay of execution. Fulham opened the scoring in the thirteenth minute with a brilliant move that spanned the length of the field. Hameur Bouazza was back in his own box again, this time not conceding a silly penalty as he had down in his last outing Wigan, but winning the ball and starting a swift counter-attack. The Algerian continued his run down the Fulham left and was in the perfect place to receive Steven Davis’ return pass, hitting an inch-perfect cross that Simon Davies guided home marvellously. It was a thing of beauty that would have been purred over all night by the Match of the Day pundits had it been scored by Arsenal or Manchester United.
Suddenly, Eriksson’s side looked all at sea at the back. There were groans from the Fulham faithful as the home side failed to punish some slack defending. Both Davis and Healy should have done better from good positions but hit their shots too close to Kapser Schmeichel, who saved gleefully. City rallied and found an equaliser through a moment of pure inspiration from Bulgarian Martin Petrov, the best player on the pitch. He seized on the loose ball as a Fulham move broke down, teased Chris Baird and cut inside to strike an unstoppable shot underneath a startled Antti Niemi. It was just breathtaking.
As was the manner in which Fulham unexpectedly took the lead a couple of minutes after the break. Manchester City looked as though they were still organising the wall for a free-kick in a central position some 25 yards out when Bouazza strode forward and lashed into the corner. That was the definition of a bolt from the blue, though in keeping with Fulham’s season they failed to hang onto their lead.
From their first significant attack since going behind, the visitors equalised. Fulham’s defence were criminally slow in reacting after Emile Mpenza won a header and Elano was encouraged to run towards goal. Niemi seemed surprised by the power on the Brazilian’s shot and the rebound run to Mpenza, who made sure with the follow-up. It was to get better for the travelling fans. Niemi was horribly exposed again this time at the near post as he allowed Petrov’s speculative drive to beat him after the Bulgarian and Elano had worked a smart one-two.
In response to seeing a decent position potentially slip away, Sanchez introduced Seol Ki-Hyeon and Murphy. The Korean produced one quite unbelievably run taking the ball past three City defenders in the blink of an eye before Murphy levelled the contest with almost his first touch. Played in by a combination of Dempsey and Davis, Murphy was given the freedom of the penalty area as City pushed up and stroked his first Fulham goal from 15 yards out. He nearly grabbed a winner moments later, but shot just over from outside the area, with Schmeichel a worried man.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Niemi; Baird, Konchesky, Hughes, Bocanegra; Smertin, Davis, Davies (Kamara 45), Bouazza (Seol 68); Healy (Murphy 68), Dempsey. Subs (not used): Keller, Stefanovic.
BOOKED: Bocanegra, Dempsey, Konchesky.
GOALS: Davies (13), Bouazza (48), Murphy (75).
MANCHESTER CITY (4-5-1): Schmeichel; Corluka, Garrido, Richards, Dunne; Hamann, Johnson, Ireland (Sun Jihai 84), Elano (Geovanni 80), Petrov; Mpenza (Bianchi 80). Subs (not used): Hart, Ball.
BOOKED: Richards, Hamann.
GOALS: Petrov (35, 60), Mpenza (50).
REFEREE: Mark Halsey (Lancashire).