Mark Schwarzer played a starring role in keeping his old side out as Fulham continued their impressive run away from home with a point at Middlesbrough this afternoon.
The big Australian goalkeeper made an emotional return to the Riverside, where he spent eleven happy years before moving to London in the summer, and preceeded to make a series of excellent side to deny his former club a much-needed victory in their battle against relegation. Schwarzer needed to be at his very best as Gareth Southgate sent out an adventurous side full of attacking intent.
The home side made a very bright start – and could have been well clear by the midway point of the first half. The roaming Stewart Downing was posing plenty of problems and one probing cross was just cut out by the excellent Aaron Hughes before Alfonso Alves could get on the end of it. Hughes then blocked a fierce Dowing drive and, before the half was out, the England international saw another strike on goal bounce away to safety – this time after it had hit Marlon King.
Roared on by a bumper crowd – and credit to Middlesbrough for giving season-ticket holders the opportunity to buy cut-price tickets for their friends – Boro were certainly putting themselves about. Tuncay typified their endeavour as he scampered around the field disrupting Fulham’s rhythm and when he had the ball he was a real threat. One burst down the right created an opening for Jermie Aliadiere, who shot rather tamely at Schwarzer.
It took a while for Fulham to get into the game but we gradually began to play with a bit more purpose. A lovely move down the right saw Simon Davies get to the byline and drive the ball across goal and only some very brave goalkeeping from Brad Jones denied Bobby Zamora what would have been a simple tap-in. There was a large slice of luck for Middlesbrough a few moments later when Johnson burst clear and cut inside before firing a shot that struck the base of the post. Credit to young David Wheater, outstanding at the back all afternoon for Boro, who made it difficult for Johnson and might have got the slightest of touches to take the ball onto the post.
Fulham were now looking a more dangerous and enjoying their best spell of the game. Zamora hit a curling shot on the half-turn just wide and it was something a surprise that, after a bright first half, it remained goalless when the half-time whistle went.
Boro came out after the break with all guns blazing. They would have taken the lead early in the second half too – but for a magnificent Schwarzer save. Downing, who had swapped wings with Aliadiere, whipped in an inviting cross which Tuncay powered goalwards with a brilliant header, only for Schwarzer to turn it aside as he dived full length to preserve parity. There was a lovely moment before the ensuing corner when the Turkish international offered his hand to congratulate the goalkeeper on such a fine save.
The Australian was certainly kept busy as Boro applied plenty of pressure on the Fulham goal. He kept out an effort from the former Chelsea centre back Robert Huth and then did brilliantly to tip over a rising drive from Downing after King had caused panic in the Fulham defence with a clever flick-on.
Fulham sprung into life briefly as we looked dangerous on the counter-attack. Jones did well to thwart John Pantsil who found himself in an advanced position from right back – and the goalkeeper comfortably gathered a dangerous ball in from Clint Dempsey. Both Konchesky and Hughes were forced into last-ditch clearances as Boro went on the attack and the game opened up in the final ten minutes.
Referee Peter Walton rightly waved away optimistic Middlesbrough handball appeals after the ball was deflected onto Dickson Etuhu’s arm – it would have been a very harsh penalty. Although how the infuriatingly fussy official allowed Jones to get away with what looked like a very crude challenge on Dempsey as he burst forward earlier only he will know.
Fulham perked up as Diomansy Kamara was sent on for Andy Johnson up front and the Senegalese forward might have won it at the death with a couple of opportunities. Jones denied Dempsey and Zamora lashed a good chance over the bar in the closing stages – the very kind of miss that makes people wonder why Roy persists with him up front.
Given our appalling league record against Middlesbrough – we’ve never won at the Riverside and it’s a quarter of a century since a rare 2-1 win at Ayrsome Park – this was a highly creditable point. Diego Tristan’s late goal for West Ham at Aston Villa keeps them very much favourites to take that European place but, with winnable games in our run-in, it certainly isn’t out of reach.
MIDDLESBROUGH (4-4-2): Jones; McMahon, Taylor, Wheater, Huth; Bates, Downing, Aliadiere, Tuncay; King, Alves (Adam Johnson 83). Subs (not used): Turnbull, Hoyte, Riggott, Digard, Emnes, Shawky.
BOOKED: McMahon, Tuncay, King.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Davies (Gera 70), Dempsey; Zamora, Andrew Johnson (Kamara 87). Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Stoor, Baird, Dacourt, Nevland.
REFEREE: Peter Walton (Northamptonshire).