Defeats don’t come more gut-wrenching than this. Fulham, far too timid in the first half, pummelled the Tottenham goal in a frantic second-half search for an equaliser but found forty year-old Brad Friedel in unbeatable form. When they did look like finding a way past the American goalkeeper, fate intervened. A combination of Kyle Walker’s ball-cuddling skills and Jermain Defoe’s predatory instincts made for the second spell of sickening stoppage time in a fortnight and left Martin Jol scratching his head in disbelief afterwards.
What the scoreline doesn’t tell you, the statistics do. Tottenham had six shots to Fulham’s twenty. At times in the second half, it was like a Thames tidal wave was carrying the ball towards the Spurs goal. And, yet, Tottenham resisted. Friedel, looking far safer than Heurelho Gomes ever did, made some simply sublime saves. Arguably none was better than the second-minute stretch to claw away a Steve Sidwell header, but he also denied his compatriot Clint Dempsey in a one-on-one shortly after Spurs had gone in front through Gareth Bale.
In truth, Fulham stood off their opponents alarmingly in the first 45 minutes. Both goals were things of real beauty and left Jol’s side with a mountain to climb. Ten minutes in, Walker’s electric pace surprised John Arne Riise and, although Mark Schwarzer, pushed Aaron Lennon’s cross out of his six-yard box, Bale returned it with interest, and the Welsh winger’s shot flew in off the unfortunate Chris Baird. Spurs enjoyed the more fluent possession and, as the first half looked like petering out, they struck again. Lennon linked up with Bale down the left and sped into the penalty area, skipping around Baird, and shooting across Schwarzer. Before Peter Walton blew for the break, Zdenek Grygera collapsed in agony – his piercing screams were horrific – and he needed an oxygen mask to be applied before he was stretchered off with a serious knee injury.
Initially, the second half appeared to be following a similar pattern. Spurs were quick out of the blocks again with the otherwise anonymous Emmanuel Adebayor finding Bale, who this time failed to generate sufficient power to unduly worry Schwarzer with a low shot. But Fulham gradually crept back into the contest. Scott Parker, perhaps feeling the pain of a stray Sidwell elbow, drifted out of the contest – and the home side raised the noise level with a succession of corners. From one, Brede Hangeland brought another fine save out of Friedel, who stretched to tip his header over the crossbar and, moments later, Younes Kaboul nearly diverted a Bobby Zamora shot into his own net. The ball drifted agonisingly wide.
Damien Duff’s teasing deliveries were causing chaos in the Tottenham area and it didn’t take long for the Spurs defence to crack. With Hangeland arriving late in the six yard-box again, Ledley King headed against Kaboul and watched in horror as it bounced back into his own net. The goal sparked another spell of Fulham pressure. Kaboul gave away a free-kick for handball and with Spurs waiting for a strike from Riise or Murphy, the Fulham skipper rolled the ball across to Baird, whose thumping shot was palmed away by Friedel.
Bryan Ruiz replaced Duff with twenty minutes to play and the Costa Rican soon showed that was beginning to find life in the Premier League much more to his liking. A beautifully weighted pass through the Spurs defence released Dempsey, who rounded Friedel, only for King to make a superb saving tackle. Moussa Dembele was finding far more room to roam and the Belgian’s terrific ball freed Zamora who, with Dempsey waiting for a cut-back, decided to test Friedel from an acute angle. Naturally, the Tottenham goalkeeper was up to the challenge.
Then came the gripping denouement. Dempsey’s flicked header sparked a melee in the box as both Dickson Etuhu and Ruiz scrambled to apply the finishing touch. Walker’s hands helped to repel the danger, as did Friedel with a superb stop from Dembele. From the corner, Hangeland’s header stung Friedel’s hands and Modric somehow scrambled a Dempsey header off the line. What might Andy Johnson had done with all those chances had he not been ruled out with an ankle injury?
As the Fulham faithful rued their missed chances, Spurs scored with the final attack of the game. A warning had come from an earlier move which saw Parker tumble under a challenge from Sidwell, with the referee waving away penalty appeals. There was no escape when Adebayor controlled a Bale throw and fizzed a low cross in the centre, where Defoe’s first-time shot deflected in off the unfortunate Kelly. It may have been harsh on Jol’s side, but Spurs’ steel makes suggests they’ll be Champions’ League contenders at the very least.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Grygera (Kelly 45), J.A. Riise, Hangeland, Baird; Sidwell, Murphy (Etuhu 76); Duff (Ruiz 71), Dempsey, Dembele; Zamora. Subs (not used): Etheridge, Briggs, Frei, Kasami.
GOAL: Kaboul (o.g. 57).
TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR (4-4-1-1): Friedel; Walker, Assou-Ekotto, King, Kaboul; Parker, Modric, Lennon (Sandro 78), Bale; van der Vaart (Defoe 66); Adebayor. Subs (not used): Cudicini, Corluka, Bassong, Livermore, Pienaar.
GOALS: Bale (10), Lennon (45), Defoe (90).
REFEREE: Peter Walton (Northamptonshire).