After three straight league defeats and with minds turning towards the Europa League, the World Cup and the prospect of a summer break, Fulham needed a victory and fast. It would prove a morale-booster ahead of that testing trip to Wolfsburg and halt a worrying slide down the table as the season draws to a close. Wigan needed the points, but for different reasons, as Roberto Martinez’s side are still in a relegation scrap.
On a surprisingly sunny afternoon at Craven Cottage, both sides would have taken a gritty victory. At half-time, it looked like Wigan’s game for the taking as the Latics slowly began to push a jaded home side back and took the lead through a Jason Scotland shot that Mark Schwarzer will feel he should have kept out. Fulham kept plugging away and were much improved in the second period. Substitute Stefano Okaka flicked home his first goal for the Whites just after the break and a powerful Brede Hangeland header put Fulham in front. And that’s the way it stayed, despite some late Wigan pressure prompted by the introduction of the lively Victor Moses.
Roy Hodgson avoided the temptation to rotate his squad too vigorously, only opting to rest Bobby Zamora from the side that downed the German champions in Thursday’s first leg. David Elm got a start up front but the Swede was easily nullified by the Wigan defence and Fulham carried a much greater threat when Okaka replaced him for the second period. Hodgson wouldn’t have been too impressed by the way Fulham faded after a lively opening, when Chris Kirkland was forced into a smart double save. Zoltan Gera’s diving header drew a good block but Elm should have done better with the follow-up.
The home fans weren’t too happy with refereeing of Mark Clattenburg, though television replays showed that Gera’s early claim for a penalty was the result of the Hungarian tripping over his own feet rather than a defender’s. Wigan gradually enjoyed more of the possession and posed real problems for the Fulham defence. Charles N’Zogbia had their first chance, his low drive palmed away by Schwarzer, and Paul Scharner saw a clever chip – after Schwarzer completely misjudged a high ball – headed off the line by Hangeland. Wigan’s increasing confidence was illustrated by an ambitious long-range drive from Maynor Figueroa that Schwarzer had to turn over.
The Fulham goalkeeper had an uncharacteristically off-day and Wigan were the grateful beneficiaries just after the half hour. The Australian drove a clearance straight into touch giving them possession. Former Chelsea full-back Mario Melchiot sent over a deep cross that Marcelo Moreno headed back into Scotland’s path and the former Swansea striker surprised Schwarzer at his near post with a low shot. Scotland’s first Premier League goal gave Wigan a precious lead.
Pitiful defending has often undermined some excellent approach play in the final third from Martinez’s men this season and so it proved in the second half. Scharner, who had earlier been cautioned after hauling down Elm having surrendered possession in a dangerous position, was robbed by the maurauding Zoltan Gera. The Hungarian’s low cross was effortlessly lifted over a helpless Kirkland by Okaka for the Italian’s first league goal since arriving on loan from Roma in January.
Scotland had a shot blocked at source shortly afterwards but Fulham were now asking the questions. They went in front from a Damien Duff corner after Wigan left Hangeland inexplicably unmarked to thump a header in off the post. The tall Norwegian, sometimes criticised for a failure to score as many goals as a man of his height perhaps should from set-plays, could hardly pass up such a straightforward opportunity.
Wigan did stage a late rally that had Fulham clinging on a little but they barely troubled Schwarzer. Moses headed over the bar from a corner and Moreno’s long-range volley floated harmlessly into the Hammersmith End. Substitutes Scott Sinclair and Ben Watson poured forward in search of an equaliser but it was Fulham who looked more likely to score with Clint Dempsey denied by the sliding Titus Bramble as the home crowd roared for a penalty yet again.
It wasn’t the prettiest performance, but Hodgson will appreciate his side’s character in grinding this one out.
FULHAM (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Davies, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy (Baird 88), Duff, Dempsey; Gera; Elm (Okaka 45, Nevland 88). Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Smalling, Shorey, Greening.
GOALS: Okaka (47), Hangeland (58).
WIGAN ATHLETIC (4-5-1): Kirkland; Melchiot, Figueroa, Bramble, Scharner; Diame, McCarthy, N’Zogbia (Watson 85), Scotland (Moses 61), Rodallega; Moreno (Sinclair 85). Subs (not used): Stojkovic, Gohouri, Amaya, Gomez.
BOOKED: Scharner, Figueroa.
GOAL: Scotland (34).
REFEREE: Mark Clattenburg (Tyne & Wear).