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Jimmy Bullard gave Fulham’s relegation battle against relegation a shot in the arm with a terrific late free-kick that crowned a compelling comeback against Aston Villa.

Bullard, making his first start at Craven Cottage since recovering from major knee surgery, played a crucial part in the home side’s recovery from Aaron Hughes’ own goal midway through the second half. The former Wigan midfielder made the equaliser for Simon Davies and curled in a fine winner after Curtis Davies had crudely ended a fine run from Diomansy Kamara.

Villa might have had the best of a poor first period, but Martin O’Neill was forced into a half-time reshuffle after Gabriel Agbonlahor was forced with a hamstring injury. The striker is now a major doubt for England’s friendly against Switzerland at Wembley in midweek. Shaun Maloney created the clearest chance of the half, robbing Danny Murphy and sprinting in his space but his low cross eluded both Antti Niemi and the late arriving Agbonlahor.

Fulham were much more interested in containing Villa, with new signing Erik Nevland receiving very little service from the hosts’ five-man midfield. They soon had to plot a path back into the match after the visitors went in front on 68 minutes. Maloney’s corner was met by Olof Mellberg at the near post and the ball looped beyond a stranded Niemi off former Villa defender Hughes. O’Neill’s men could have put the game beyond doubt when Martin Laursen shot wastefully over when left unattended at another corner just a minute later.

In a remarkable turn of fortune, Fulham roared back to take all three points. Hodgson threw on Kamara and the returning Brian McBride for the final quarter of the game and the gamble worked. A flowing passing move found Bullard out on the right wing and his clever near-post cross located Davies, whose composed finish matched an immaculately timed run to level the contest. Brede Hangeland scuffed at a shot twelve yards out, allowing Carson to gather easily, when he might have scored but the home side were not left ruing that miss. Bullard’s curling free-kick dipped viciously past the England keeper to give Fulham real belief that they can beat the drop.

FULHAM (4-5-1): Niemi; Baird, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Andreasen, Bullard, Murphy, Davies, Dempsey (Kamara 79); Nevland (McBride 70). Subs (not used): Keller, Volz, Bocanegra.

BOOKED: S. Davies.

GOALS: S. Davies (73), Bullard (85).

ASTON VILLA (4-4-2): Carson; Laursen, Bouma (Gardner 87), C. Davies (Osbourne 90), Mellberg; Petrov, Barry, Reo-Coker, Maloney; Agbonlahor (Harewood 45), Carew. Subs (not used): Taylor, Knight.

BOOKED: Bouma, C. Davies.

GOAL: Hughes (og 68).

REFEREE: Chris Foy (Merseyside).

ATTENDANCE: 24,760.