You won’t find much Christmas cheer in the early December air at Craven Cottage this year. Fulham are in serious danger of disappearing from the Premier League if they continue to serve up dire performances such as this, an unimaginative showing against an equally disappointing Newcastle side. Perhaps they didn’t deserve to be condemned to defeat by a debatable injury-time penalty, dispatched by Joey Barton, but the result leaves them in the relegation zone. Lawrie Sanchez should prepare for a long hard slog.
It’s not as if Sanchez has been starved as resources like his predecessor, Chris Coleman. The former Northern Ireland manager was given upwards of £20m to restructure a squad that had come perilously squad to losing its Premier League status last year when too much flirtation with the drop cost Coleman his job. Fulham were never in the drop zone under their likeable former captain so perhaps Sanchez should start preparing his story for Mohamed Al Fayed after his team slumped to this defeat.
Inflicting such a dire game on their television viewers would count as cruel and unusual punishment if Setanta were an American company. When people from all over the world talk in glowing terms about the Premier League, this simply isn’t what they have in mind. Fulham were strangely reluctant to attack, despite being at home and being implored to do so by a restless and worried crowd. It was Newcastle, lifted by a draw with Arsenal and that see-saw win over Birmingham in recent weeks, who started with confidence.
Charles N’Zogbia typified their early eagerness starting a flowing break from left back, although the Frenchman has always looked more comfortable in midfield. From the resulting corner, Habib Beye saw his header deflected just wide. Later, James Milner’s strong run and cross created a chance for Barton but Niemi got down to smother his header. Fulham’s best opportunity fell to David Healy, though his attempt to chip Shay Given drifted well wide.
The second half was a little less sophorific and Fulham did carry something a little more approaching an attacking threat. Hameur Bouazza drove down the left with intent but his cross, though flying across the six-yard box, failed to find another white shirt. Healy lashed a shot goalwards from 20 yards but Given got down behind it. Newcastle’s only real opening came from a free-kick from substitute Emre, although Nicky Butt hesitated went he might have sent a more forceful header towards goal, allowing Niemi to recover the ball.
It looked as though the contest was drifting towards a draw when Howard Webb decided to penalise the birthday boy, Elliot Omozusi. It was harsh on the young full back, who turned 19 today, as it seemed like his challenge on Alan Smith was a fair one. Indeed, there were gasps of relief from the Hammersmith End as the ball trickled into Niemi’s arms. The referee disagreed, however, and Barton smashed the penalty home in front of the delighted visiting supporters.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Niemi; Omozusi, Bocanegra, Hughes, Stefanovic; Davis (Kuqi 75), Murphy, Davies, Bouazza; Healy, Dempsey. Subs (not used): Warner, Baird, Smertin, Seol.
NEWCASTLE UNITED (4-4-2): Given; Beye, N’Zogbia, Rozehnal, Cacapa; Geremi (Emre 59), Butt, Barton, Milner; Smith, Martins (Viduka 77). Subs (not used): Harper, Enrique, Edgar.
GOAL: Barton (pen 90).
REFEREE: Howard Webb (South Yorkshire)