Last Saturday afternoon, as I walked disconsolately back towards Putney for a few post-match beers, I got chatting to a father and son. The conversation drifted from Fulham’s defeat at Chelsea and on to Diomansy Kamara, who the father felt looked disinterested at Stamford Bridge. ‘That was another waste of money – he’s not really done very much for us’. I mentioned that a couple of key goals at Manchester City effectively kept us up last season, thereby repaying his transfer fee for me, and this afternoon’s predatory display hopefully helped the gentleman revise his opinion.
S0metimes, Kamara does run down blind alleys or play the wrong ball. But all players do that. In his defence, he was hardly helped by playing for much of the second half at Chelsea with no strike partner after Bobby Zamora went off. In the absence of Andy Johnson – and with Zamora only fit enough to make the bench – I was a little worried about whether the front line would be a bit powderpuff. The worries were misplaced.
Kamara and Erik Nevland, whose presence we sorely missed after he went off with a dead leg last week, looked like a natural pairing. They combined brilliant to create our first chance – Nevland’s glancing header drawing a fine save from the excellent Brad Friedel. By that point, Aston Villa had already served notice of their danger. Much of their play went through the tall John Carew, who was engaged in a fascinating tussle with his international captain Brede Hangeland throughout, and his header brought Gabby Agbonlahor into play but he shot wide.
Our quick, clever interplay was posing Villa problems. A slick passing move saw Kamara, Nevland and Clint Dempsey all involved before the ball ran towards the Norweigan about nine yards out. As well got to our feet, James Milner sent Nevland to ground. The infuriatingly fussy Mark Halsey – who still hasn’t been forgiven for changing his mind after giving a penalty at that end of the ground against Arsenal a few years ago and then disallowing a perfectly good goal by Collins John in the same game – pointed to the spot. Murphy put the penalty right into the corner, leaving Friedel with no chance even though he had guessed the right way.
We had chances to increase our lead. Paul Konchesky burst purposefully into the box and Nevland drove fractionally over the crossbar and Fulham were made to pay for not taking their chances. Villa, largely playing on the break, scored a well-crafted equaliser. Aaron Hughes, perhaps distracted by Carew at the near post, missed James Milner’s threatening cross and the ball ran all the way to Ashley Young, who had a simple finish from six yards.
Both sides then had chances to be in front at the break. Another brilliant pass from Murphy set Nevland away. He looked to be clean through on goal but a superb saving tackle from Curtis Davies saw the door slammed firmly shut. Friedel was at full stretch to parry Zoltan Gera’s shot from a corner and Nevland headed the rebound wide. The American goalkeeper – still the best in the league for my money – then did well to gather a long-range effort from his compatriot Dempsey.
But Fulham couldn’t relax. From an attacking position, they lost momentum and in the blink of an eye Villa were up the other end of the field. Young carried the ball nearly the length of the field but Agbonlahor somehow contrived to hit the near post from close range. The speedy young had been giving John Pantsil a torrid time down the Villa left. While Pantsil stuck to his task admirably, he must have been mightily relieved to see the Villa wide man swap wings in the second half. To me, that seemed a baffling decision by Martin O’Neill.
As it was, Fulham started the second half in the best manner possible. Pantsil worked hard to keep possession after Hughes mishit a clearance and Murphy prodded the ball upfield. Dempsey’s pass fell somewhat fortunately for Kamara, though the former West Brom forward still had plenty to do. He ran at the Villa defence and struck a low shot from the edge of the box that found the far corner. 26 seconds after the break, with people still coming back from their half-time cuppa, and Fulham were back in front.
The goal seemed to draw the sting out of Villa’s attacks. Instead, it was Fulham who looked the more likely to add to their tally. Friedel did well to save a Konchesky free-kick that he couldn’t have seen until late, but he was rendered helpless to stop Kamara’s clever second goal. Hangeland is finally beginning to impose himself at set pieces and his header might have been going in, but Kamara – from three or four yards out – cheekily backheeled the ball through Friedel’s legs and into the net.
O’Neill reshuffled his pack, withdrawing his full-backs as he belatedly realised that we weren’t posing too much of a threat down the flanks. Emile Heskey huffed and puffed but his only chance saw the ball bounce off his head and out of play as Fulham ran out comfortable winners in the end. I had expected a bit more from Villa, but perhaps their lack of thrust in midfield should be a reason to credit Dickson Etuhu who had another fine game in the Fulham engine room. It was brilliant to see late substitute Oliver Dacourt acknowledge Etuhu’s contribution by bowing down to acclaim the Nigerian as he left the pitch.
In just 24 hours, Fulham have vaulted back to the head of the pack in the rather lazily christened ‘race for seventh’. Spurs drew at Everton, which in itself is not a bad result, but it may well spell the end of their European ambitions. West Ham were well beaten by Liverpool in the late kick-off and so our victory reestablishes the nice little cushion we had over our rivals before the set back at Chelsea. If Manchester City don’t pull the win over United that they have proved capable of in the past, then this will have been a very satisfying weekend.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hangeland, Hughes; Etuhu (Dacourt 89), Murphy, Gera, Dempsey (Gray 85); Kamara, Nevland (Zamora 83). Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Stoor, Baird, Smalling.
GOALS: Murphy (pen 6), Kamara (46, 6o).
ASTON VILLA (4-4-2): Friedel; L. Young (Heskey 64), Shorey (Reo-Coker 64), Knight, C. Davies; Petrov, Barry, A. Young, Milner; Carew, Agbonlahor. Subs (not used): Guzan, Sidwell, Delfouneso, Gardner, Clark.
GOAL: A. Young (14).