After five straight league defeats on the spin, there was a sense of foreboding hanging over Craven Cottage tonight. The absence of seven first-team players for the visit of Portsmouth, boosted by the return of their sizeable African contingent, would hardly have lifted Fulham’s spirit. Portsmouth were targeting this as a potential opportunity to pick up precious points in their survival bid and Avram Grant’s side, much improved under the Israeli’s quiet leadership, could feel more than mildly miffed that they didn’t manage to take anything to show for their adventurous display this evening.
For a long while, it looked like another dreary display from Fulham, who have lacked any real effervescence since the pre-Christmas period, and the casual observer would have had to conclude that it was the home side who languished at the bottom of the Premier League pile on the evidence of a first half dominated by the visitors. They could have been well clear by half time were it not for some powderpuff finishing, which threatens to seriously undermine Grant’s attempts to keep the club above water.
Credit to the players, who shrugged off their fourth delayed pay cheque of the season, and delivered a performance that matched the passion displayed by their vocal travelling supporters. Grant made his attentions plain by going with three forwards – one of whom, Frederic Piquionne, missed a glorious opportunity to put Pompey in front when he shot straight at Mark Schwarzer after Jamie O’Hara’s pass sent him clean through. The French striker looked suspiciously offside but there was an element of fortune about Fulham’s escape too as the ball bounced off Schwarzer’s backside and away to safety.
O’Hara, rumoured to be a transfer target for Hodgson back in the summer, was at the heart of Portsmouth’s best moves and Kevin-Prince Boateng was proving particularly difficult for Fulham to pick up as he darted into the space between defence and midfield. Boateng sent a scorching half-volley wide and Fulham’s sleepy demeanour meant that the south coast were winning an alarming number of second balls.
The hosts threatened only sporadically in the first half. Aaron Hughes nearly notched his first goal for the club with a header that David James saved and Brede Hangeland made a nuisance of himself from a corner. Stefano Okaka, who looked speedy and yet raw on his debut, then missed a glorious chance to make the perfect start to his Fulham career, glancing wide from spitting distance when he seemed easier to score after Jonathan Greening had diverted Danny Murphy’s cross goalwards. The crestfallen Italian’s reaction, a rueful shake of the head, told you all you needed to know.
Portsmouth were far from finished. After a bout of pinball in the Fulham penalty area, Piquionne’s shot bounced back for O’Hara only for the on-loan midfielder to blaze haplessly wide. Hodgson needed to make himself heard at half time as Fulham had ceded far too much ground to their struggling opponents. Okaka looked able to stretch the Portsmouth defence but at times both he and Bobby Zamora drifted wide leaving an alarming lack of white shirts in the penalty area.
Fulham made a more promising start to the second period, forcing a couple of corners, and Zamora’s aerial presence looked to be unsettling the Pompey defence. The impressive Nicky Shorey, who was eager to get forward and looked as if he’d been part of the Fulham back line all season, offered greater width than had been seen for a while at the Cottage and Fulham almost profited. Zamora headed straight at James from a floated centre and then nodded agonisingly wide from a Damien Duff cross.
Erik Nevland was introduced in an attempt to repeat his heroics from the bench in this fixture last year and he very nearly made an immediate impact. With his first touch, an ambitious volley from an acute angle brushed the side netting and there was a sense that Fulham were beginning to get on top. Credit to Hodgson here too. His substitutions – bringing on Kagisho Dikgacoi and David Elm, who offered another lively cameo – injected more energy into Fulham, which was pleasing given his reluctance to shake things up in the past. Still, there was little in the way of penetration, and relief was the primary emotion when the decisive goal arrived.
Duff produced one of his sudden bursts of pace to reach a loose ball and drive into the penalty area after Portsmouth failed to clear their lines. His cross eluded several blue shirts to reach Greening, a surprise starter ahead of Bjorn Helge Riise, who calmly stroked his first Fulham goal past James from eight yards. There were a few nervy moments – as well as a nice acknowledgment of the Hammersmith End from Steve Finnan – towards the end as Portsmouth pressed in search of an equaliser, but Fulham held on to climb back into the top half of the table.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Kelly (Dikgacoi 55), Shorey, A. Hughes, Hangeland; Baird, Murphy, Greening, Duff; Zamora (Elm 78), Okaka (Nevland 70). Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Smalling, Stoor, Riise.
GOAL: Greening (75).
PORTSMOUTH (4-3-3): James; Finnan, Belhadj, Ben-Haim, Wilson; Boateng, Basinas (Owusu-Abeyie 82), O’Hara; Yebda, Piquionne (Webber 62), Dindane. Subs (not used): Ashdown, Vanden Borre, Rocha, R. Hughes, Mullins.
REFEREE: Anthony Taylor (Wythenshawe)