This was a dreary watch on a slow Sunday afternoon. Villa, desperate to bounce back from the shock of their Europa League exit in midweek, were always likely to come sharply out of the blocks but they didn’t Fulham to give them a helping hand. The tone for a forgettable ninenty minutes was set early on when we were too casual in possession – Hangeland hitting a risky pass to Hughes and our captain for the day playing a hospital ball back towards his own goal that gave Schwarzer too much to do.
The defending wasn’t much better from the resulting corner either. Dickson Etuhu didn’t screen the near post very effectively, allowing Carlos Cuellar to flick a threatening ball from Young into a dangerous area and before John Pantsil could react the ball had flown past Schwarzer off the full back’s head. Since Roy Hodgson’s system, so effective in our memorable 2008/09 season, is predicated on making things tight for the opposition, an early goal was just what we didn’t need.
Villa’s 4-5-1 formation made it difficult too. Their three central midfielders controlled the game and underlined just how much Fulham miss Danny Murphy, even if our skipper has been below par of late. Etuhu didn’t have a particularly good game and Jonathan Greening was disappointing on debut, though there’s every reason to hope that our on-loan midfielder can improve once he gets used to the system. Singling out Greening’s substandard distribution would be harsh as nobody in a white shirt passed the ball with any degree of success.
Clint Dempsey ventured infield far too much for my liking, rather nulifying the width that he and Damien Duff, who also came searching for the ball, would have needed to provide if Fulham were to get at Villa. The American did have Fulham’s best chances – but his collection of hopeful headers were half-chances at best. Kamara and Nevland, reunited up front in the absence of Bobby Zamora, were all too easily subdued. They received little service, but Fulham badly missed Zamora as a focal point for their attacks.
Villa seemed largely content to sit on their early lead. Steve Sidwell had a good chance just after the home side went ahead, creating by a bit of arm-wrestling between Agbonlahor and Hangeland just inside the box. The ball broke to the former Chelsea midfielder, who drove over the bar on the stretch. For all their possession, Villa’s only other chance of real note was a rather tame header from Agbonlahor that Schwarzer easily gathered.
Any improvement in Fulham’s performance after the break was marginal. Our attacks looked one-dimensional and largely based around ball retention in midfield, but the ball wasn’t sticking in the Villa final third. Credit to young Ciaran Clark, making his debut for the home side, who kept our front two quiet but there was a real lack of invention as we went forward.
Keeping things tighter at the back was essential, but a well-taken goal from Agbonlahor effectively killed off the contest. Greening dallied on the ball and the England international robbed him and nipped away from Etuhu’s attentions. Aaron Hughes backed away and Agbonlahor kept running before firing an unstoppable shot beyond Schwarzer. There was great relief around Villa Park and that was understandable. Villa were a long way below their best, but at 2-0 they’d done enough.
Hodgson’s only change was to replace Nevland with Eddie Johnson, the only forward on the bench. The American striker has a point to prove, having yet to score for Fulham since he joined from Kansas City and spending the second half of last season on loan at Cardiff. It would be unfair to judge him on the evidence of this brief cameo when Fulham struggled to create much and, unless Hodgson brings another forward to the club in the couple of days before the transfer window shuts, you could see him getting a few more opportunities.
I’m sure the doom and gloom merchants will be out after this one – blaming our trip to Russia on Thursday and worrying about relegation. I’m much more cheerful about our prospects. As I said on Friday, we’ve picked up the same number of points from our first three games as we did in the corresponding fixtures last year and anyone who expects much from a league trip to Villa Park has clearly been living on another planet since we’ve been in the top flight. With any luck Murphy and Zamora will be in contention to return to the first team by the time we face Everton after the international break and the boys can really get our season off and running. It’s an indication of just how well we’ve done under Hodgson that these back-to-back league defeats were our first successive Premier League reverses since those painful home defeats to Hull and Blackburn.
ASTON VILLA (4-5-1): Friedel; Beye, Shorey, Cuellar, Clark; Petrov, Reo-Coker (Carew 72), Sidwell, Milner, A. Young; Agbonlahor. Subs: Guzan, Warnock, Albrighton, Gardner, Delph, Heskey.
GOALS: Pantsil (o.g. 3), Agbonlahor (69).
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Greening, Dempsey, Duff; Nevland (E. Johnson 75), Kamara. Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Smalling, Baird, Kelly, Riise, Gera.
BOOKED: Etuhu, Greening.
REFEREE: Steve Bennett (Kent).