After the expectation comes the frustration. Martin Jol might have promised expansive football but on the evidence of this dour draw against a battling Aston Villa side, his reshaping of the Fulham side he inherited from Mark Hughes remains very much a work in progress. Both sides might have made more of some very presentable opportunities and when Fulham’s misfiring forwards did find the target, Shay Given produced a couple of splendid saves to keep them at bay.
Jol is certainly tinkering with a formula that served both Hughes and Roy Hodgson well. Aaron Hughes was shifted to right back for his 400th Premier League appearance, with Philippe Senderos partnering Brede Hangeland in central defence. The reason for the reorganisation was two-fold: one, with John-Arne Riise often pushing forward to become a left winger with Fulham in possession, Hughes can slot in alongside the two centre halves to make a back three. Secondly, Jol might have wanted to marshal the threat of Charles N’Zogbia. Villa’s new signing started brightly but faded, eventually being replaced by Marc Albrighton. Whilst Fulham looked solid at the back, one can’t help but think it is harsh on the dependable Chris Baird.
The new manager also seems happy to revive the partnership between Bobby Zamora and Andy Johnson, which proved mighty effective in Fulham’s early European fixtures. Villa were a step up in class, however, and looked far more organised than the side that Gerard Houllier bought to the Cottage last season. James Collins and Richard Dunne did well to nullify Fulham’s front two, although it was a surprise to see Moussa Dembele replace Zamora, Fulham’s natural target man, with twenty minutes to play.
Riise should have rewarded the home side’s enterprising start after just ten minutes. Released by an exquisite pass from Danny Murphy, the former Liverpool full-back galloped into plenty of space on the left side of the Villa box, but lofted a powerful drive wastefully over the crossbar. Damien Duff was next to come close, creating a half-chance for himself out of nothing with a clever turn and shot from 25 yards that cleared Given’s goal.
New Villa boss Alex McLeish chose an attacking 4-2-3-1 formation with Gabby Agbonlahor, Emile Heskey and N’Zogbia playing behind Darren Bent, and the visitors almost took the lead thanks to some route one football. Collins hit a long ball over the Fulham defence and Heskey shrugged off a sleepy Senderos, before shooting straight at Mark Schwarzer. Bent did have the ball in the net a couple of minutes later, but he had strayed offside before collecting Heskey’s pass. The visitors finished the first period the stronger. Collins should have scored instead of heading wide from an inviting N’Zogbia cross and a Stiliyan Petrov piledriver flashed just over the bar from 35 yards. Fulham’s sole riposte came courtesy of Johnson, who twisted away from Collins and stung Given’s palms with a venomous shot.
The home side looked far livelier after the break and should have made the most of a dominant first twenty minutes. Clever interplay between Damien Duff and Johnson created a glorious chance for Zamora two minutes after the restart. Johnson’s flick dropped dangerously inside the six-yard box and Zamora stabbed it towards goal, only for Given to produce a brilliant reaction stop. A deep cross from Riise found Zamora at the far post but he headed straight at Villa’s new goalkeeper, who had to spread himself well to deny the Fulham striker twenty minutes later. Zamora controlled a lofted Murphy pass superbly and darted past Dunne, but Given made a splendid save with his feet. The Republic of Ireland’s international save from a tame Johnson shot moments later was more routine and suddenly the life had been sucked out of Fulham.
Albrighton added some much-needed penetration to Villa’s attacks but the young winger squandered their best chance of the second period. A swift counter-attack saw Bent square to an unmarked Albrighton, whose rising shot rippled the side-netting. Villa finished the stronger, with Dunne seeing a downward header from a corner deflected just wide. Both managers will be happy with a point from an even contest, but will be seeking to eliminate the profligacy as the season continues.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Hughes, J.A. Riise, Senderos, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Duff, Dempsey; Zamora (Dembele 72), Johnson. Subs (not used): Somogyi, Kelly, Baird, Briggs, Sidwell, Kasami.
BOOKED: Murphy, Dembele.
ASTON VILLA (4-2-3-1): Given; L. Young, Warnock, Dunne, Collins; Delph, Petrov (Clark 88); N’Zogbia (Albrighton 66), Heskey, Agbonlahor; Bent. Subs (not used): Guzan, Makoun, Ireland, Bannan, Delfouneso.
BOOKED: Agbonlahor, Heskey, Petrov, Dunne.
REFEREE: Lee Mason (Lancashire).