You can’t keep Bobby Zamora out of the headlines these days. Having secured Fulham a slender Europa League advantage with a stunning winner over Shakhtar Donetsk on Thursday, he curled home an exquisite 90th minute free-kick to pinch a precious victory over an impressive Birmingham side this afternoon. His 15th goal of the season would have given a timely nudge to Fabio Capello with England’s next friendly against Egypt around the corner.
Alec McLeish’s team looked set to end a miserable run away from home after an own goal from Chris Baird gave them early lead. Birmingham had plenty of chances to increase their advantage with Baird blocking brilliantly from the recalled Keith Fahey and Sebastian Larsson, so often the scourge of Fulham in recent years, had a shot stopped at source by an otherwise off-colour Dickson Etuhu.
Perhaps jaded from their European exploits, Fulham failed to find their usual fluency and only really built up a head of steam in the second half. In a dreary first period, passes often went astray and the lively James McFadden was allowed to wander dangerously through a meek Fulham midfield too many times for comfort. Having coughed up such a disastrous goal after Birmingham began brightly, Roy Hodgson would have been to be delivering his team-talk with the deficit only at 1-0.
Blues looked to heading for the crucial safety mark of 40 when Baird, who has been outstanding all season either in midfield or his historically more challenging position of right back, sent an unstoppable header past Mark Schwarzer and into the top corner after Lee Bowyer had hooked a cross towards the back post following a mistake from Brede Hangeland. He was in the right place to stop a Fahey shot a couple of minutes later as things threatened to go from bad to worse for Fulham.
The Northern Ireland international immediately attempted to right his wrong by spraying a glorious through ball downfield for Simon Davies but the Welshman’s volley was well blocked by Joe Hart. Down the other end, Damien Duff scampered to the byline and hung over a cross for Zoltan Gera to attack but the Hungarian couldn’t climb high enough to make a connection and then saw a shot blocked by Stephen Carr.
That prompted a spell of pressure for Fulham which saw Scott Dann halt a threatening Danny Murphy run and Simon Davies head straight at Hart after Gera had worked some space to send over a cross. Birmingham were still playing the neater football, with Bowyer, who had settled the corresponding fixture at St. Andrew’s in November, to the fore. Larsson had a shot blocked and Cameron Jerome’s clever runs were posing problems for the Fulham defence. The striker had earlier almost made it 2-0 with a curling shot that drifted just wide.
Just as in midweek, Fulham emerged for the second half with much more attacking intent. A midfield that had been sitting far too deep now began to take the game to Birmingham. Zamora’s clever touches suddenly seemed to be that little bit more threatening, particularly when did brilliantly to create some space for himself with his back to goal 20 yards out, but a repeat of his Shakhtar blockbuster didn’t have the necessary power to beat Hart.
Jerome was still a real menace at the other end and made have done better than making a hash of a half chance, before Phil Dowd turned down a decent penalty shout against Dann for handball. The equaliser Fulham craved arrived on the hour mark with Duff demonstrating his quality in front of the Ireland coach Giovanni Trapattoni. The former Newcastle winger cut in from the right, worked a neat one-two with Gera, and then fired a shot past Hart with the aid of the far post.
Fulham then pressed for a second, but it was Birmingham who came closest to retaking the lead. McFadden weaved his way past two Fulham tacklers and was only denied a majestic winner by a fine save from Schwarzer, who turned his long-distance drive onto the crossbar. Even then, the ball bounced down onto the goalline and away to safety.
A frenzied, open finale looked destined to end in stalemate until Stephen Carr blocked off Zoltan Gera in a central position just outside the box. Zamora, who stroked home a free-kick from similar range against Burnley a couple of weeks ago, was always favourite to take it. Hart seemed to have read the script, positioning himself closer to his far post to cover the danger. But Zamora got enough height and bend to beat the on-loan goalkeeper’s despairing dive and take Fulham above Birmingham in the table. The watching Capello could have only been impressed.
FULHAM (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Baird, Shorey, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy (Smalling 90), Duff, Davies (Riise 83); Gera; Zamora. Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Kelly, Greening, Okaka, Elm.
GOALS: Duff (60), Zamora (90).
BIRMINGHAM CITY (4-4-2): Hart; Carr, Ridgewell, R. Johnson, Dann; Ferguson (Michel 90), Bowyer, Larsson (Gardner 68), Fahey; Jerome (Phillips 77), McFadden. Subs (not used): Taylor, Parnaby, Vignal, Benitez.
GOAL: Baird (o.g. 3)
REFEREE: Phil Dowd (Stoke on Trent)