Lightning does strike twice. Almost a year ago, a miraculous second half comeback at Eastlands gave our flagging survival bid the impetus it so desperately needed. Yesterday, at the same ground – and spookily the same end – Fulham again scored three second half goals without reply to clinch a big win over Manchester City that puts the Whites right back in the hunt for an unlikely European place.
What made the victory so much more satisfying was the fact that for the first 45 minutes this was shaping up to be yet another stereotypical away day. Buoyed by our first win on the road all season at Bolton last time out, the boys started fantastically. There’s nothing new about that – we usually have a good 20 minute spell away from home before fading badly. We could have been a couple of goals up inside the first quarter of the contest. Bobby Zamora’s pace got him away from Richard Dunne and the City defender’s untimely slip allowed Bobby a shot goal but Shay Given blocked his effort from point blank range. Andy Johnson got in behind the City backline on a couple of ocassions and might have done a little better with his finish, whilst Clint Dempsey screwed a shot horribly wide when he had a little more time than he realised.
Typically, the home side took the lead with their first real shot on goal. The dangerous Stephen Ireland was allowed to run half the length of the field unchallenged and, as Aaron Hughes and John Pantsil backed off, his speculative shot from distance looped off Dickson Etuhu and past a stranded Mark Schwarzer. It was harsh on Fulham but a timely reminder that if you want to feature at the top end of the table, it pays to take your chances. They could have gone in two goals down but Valeri Bojinov’s shot flashed just wide.
According to Clint’s post-match interview, Hodgson was fairly calm at half-time. I’m sure our esteemeed manager can lose it if the situation demands an angry dressing down but his civilised manner seems to hit the right note. Apparently, he told the boys they were rather unfortunate to be a goal down and if they continued to play the way they had before the break, more chances would follow. And, hey presto, they did.
We owed our equaliser to a dreadful defensive error in truth. We had looked lively in the early stages of the second half but, as so often, a lack of a quality final ball let us down. A promising attack looked to have petered out but Pablo Zabaleta surrended possession in a dangerous position. Zamora took it on and, although his run was stopped by Micah Richards, the ball broke kindly for Dempsey, who drove his shot confidently past Given.
The goal seemed to galvanise Fulham. Next to profit was Dickson Etuhu, who added family bragging rights to his first goal for the club, as his brother Kelvin was making a surprise start. Nigel De Jong, who hardly looked worth the reported £17m City paid for him in January on this showing, made a hash of clearing a cross and the ball came to Etuhu in a central position just outside the penalty area. His fierce shot flew into the top corner, leaving Given with no chance. It was interesting to hear that the City staff feel that Dickson, an early graduate of their excellent academy who was part of their side which won promotion back to the Premier League, was one who got away and great to see one of his rasping drives hit the back of the net.
City were a little depleted by injuries and their European game in Hamburg on Thursday night. The forthcoming second leg – they trail 3-1 – on Thursday, as well as tiredness, was apparently the reason for leaving Robinho on the bench. The Brazilian was sent on, along with the lively Danny Sturridge, just after the hour mark but cut a largely frustrated figure as City struggled to get back into the game. He did have one chance as he was sent clear by a terrific through ball from Sturridge but his shot lacked the power necessary to beat Schwarzer.
Any hopes the home side might have still harboured about adding to their fine run of six successive wins at the City of Manchester Stadium were extinguished by Dempsey’s second. With City pressing forward in search of the equaliser, Dunne decided that he’d try and nick the ball from Zamora on the halfway line. Bobby, who was full of running and had another excellent game leading the line, saw the centre back coming and dummied his way past Dunne. He had plenty of options as he ran towards goal but played a cute ball through to Dempsey, who composed himself before slipping his shot through Given’s legs and securing the victory.
I said in the preview on Friday that our outside chance of a European place really rested on getting a win at Manchester City. That we did it so impressively may have made the prospect of European football at Craven Cottage next season a little more possible. Our next two games are very winnable as well. Given our away form, we would be entitled to fancy our chances next Saturday at Middlesbrough, although Gareth Southgate’s side will be scrapping for their lives in their bid to avoid relegation – which was given a timely boost by their vital win over Hull City on Saturday. The following week sees Stoke, who still aren’t quite safe after Andy Carroll’s late equaliser denied them a win on Saturday night, come to the Cottage and six points would put us very much in the fight for that European place. For now, we should be delighted with two successive away wins.
MANCHESTER CITY (4-1-4-1): Given; Richards, Garrido, Onuoha, Dunne; de Jong; Zabaleta, Ireland, K. Etuhu (Sturridge 64), Petrov (Robinho 64); Bojinov (Evans 55). Subs (not used): Harte, McGivern, Fernandes, Elano.
GOAL: Ireland (28).
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hangeland, Hughes; D. Etuhu, Murphy (Dacourt 89), Davies, Dempsey (Gera 86); Zamora (Kamara 86), A. Johnson. Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Stoor, Baird, Nevland.
GOALS: Dempsey (50, 83), D. Etuhu (59).
REFEREE: Mark Halsey (Bolton).