Fulham fans have become accustomed over the years to watching two completely different sides. The insipid, sickly travellers are a world apart from the team that calls Craven Cottage home and it has largely been the Whites’ sparkling home form that has sustained their ten year stay amongst the elite of English football. It was little surprise that Fulham were far more vibrant this afternoon in brushing aside Wigan than their dour display at West Brom a week ago and the win was a much appreciated boost for Mark Hughes, who might not have been under pressure down by the Thames yet, but would have been alarmed by how easily that ‘draw specialist’ tag had transferred from Manchester City to Fulham.
Hughes’ side have all the quality necessary to finish in the top half of the table, but injuries and a disappointing recent run of form had seen Fulham moored closer to the relegation zone than the top ten at the start of play. Wigan, on a rather unheralded seven-game unbeaten streak, might have sensed an opportunity to snare a point or more given how meekly their opponents had surrendered under the slightest pressure at The Hawthorns last week but the combined talents of Clint Dempsey and Zoltan Gera soon had Hughes smiling.
Gera and Dempsey had started the season in competition for the same spot in support of Bobby Zamora, but the Hungarian had found himself out of favour after Hughes had introduced Moussa Dembele. Gera’s continued absence, even after Zamora felt the full force of Karl Henry’s mistimed lunge a month ago, has baffled many regulars at the Cottage. You don’t go from player of the season and a potent goal threat to a poor player simply because your manager has changed. With Gera playing in a more advanced role this afternoon, Fulham looked far more lively going forward.
The game was decided by two goals in 15 minutes from Dempsey as the first half came to a close but Gera’s artistry threatened the Wigan goal long before that. His languid, almost relaxed running style, disguises both his quick feet and a clever footballing brain. Floating between a fluid front two of Dempsey and Dembele, Gera was afforded the license to influence the contest, something which Wigan would soon come to forget. Wigan endured a sticky opening with Ali Al-Habsi’s juggling of a Simon Davies corner somehow unpunished after a desperate goalmouth scramble and Brede Hangeland heading over from close-range, but it was remarkable that they resisted the white tide for half an hour.
When the deadlock was broken it was Gera who was the architect of the opening goal. Spotting Carlos Salcido surging down the left flank, Gera spread the play with a perfectly weighted pass and Dempsey gleefully glanced Fulham in front from the edge of the six-yard box. He could have stretched Fulham’s lead, too, shooting narrowly wide and spurning a glorious headed chance, but Dempsey gave the half-time scoreline a more convincing look with a predatory volley from Chris Baird’s cross shortly before the interval.
Fulham started the second half with similar ambition and Salcido was a matter of inches away from opening his Fulham account with a confident cross-shot that almost outfoxed Al-Habsi before the busy Wigan goalkeeper denied Gera a deserved goal and fielded a follow-up from Dembele. Roberto Martinez’s side carried more of an attacking threat in the second period but a slalom run from Mohamed Diame only resulted in a low drive into the side netting and Hugo Rodallega saw little of the ball up against Aaron Hughes and Brede Hangeland.
The three points vaulted Fulham from sixteenth up to eighth in the table after ten games, though nobody will be celebrating just yet. If Hughes could complete the conundrum that has flummoxed all of his predecessors – namely how to get Fulham turning in complete performances away from the Cottage as well – then it might be time to crack up the champagne. Until then, his evolving side is very much a work in progress.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Baird, Salcido, Hughes, Hangeland; Greening, Murphy (Dikgacoi 86), Davies (A. Johnson 80), Gera; Dempsey, Dembele. Subs (not used): Stockdale, Kelly, Pantsil, Riise, E. Johnson.
GOALS: Dempsey (30, 44).
WIGAN ATHLETIC (4-4-2): Al Habsi; Alcaraz, G. Caldwell, Stam, Figueroa; Thomas, Cleverley, Diame (Moses 73), N’Zogbia; Di Santo (Gomez 45), Rodallega. Subs (not used): Kirkland, Gohouri, S. Caldwell, Watson, Boselli.
REFEREE: Andre Marriner (Birmingham).