We might be about to enter the coldest summer snap in living memory, but things are hotting up down by the River Thames. After a slow start, Fulham have begun to sizzle rather nicely under Martin Jol, who returned to the touchline this afternoon after fighting off a chest infection, and will now post their best ever Premier League points total after an upbeat win over Sunderland. Two of Fulham’s star performers, Clint Dempsey and Moussa Dembele, scored the goals that secured another impressive victory, although in keeping with the Cottagers season, the win wasn’t without its nervy moments.
Plenty of column inches have already been filled about the futures of Dempsey and Dembele, who are both out of contract next summer. The American attacking midfielder has consistently performed at such a high level throughout this campaign that whispers have long been circulating about a host of big clubs, both English and from abroad, who might be coveting his signature. Dempsey will have added an extra couple of million to his valuation at the very least by bending a brilliant free-kick into the top corner to open the scoring from 25 yards – and his importance at Craven Cottage was underlined by a banner in the Johnny Haynes Stand at full-time that pointedly pleaded: ‘Clint: make my day, please stay’.
The Texan’s 23rd goal of a remarkable season seemed to give Fulham a platform to record a fifth win in seven games that has given Jol a real chance of equalling new England manager Roy Hodgson’s seventh-place finish in 2008/2009, which was a club record. But, not for the first time this season, the home side were at times lackadaisical in approach – and were punished by a blistering drive from distance by Phil Bardsley. The Black Cats had certainly sounded warnings about their attacking intent, with Stephane Sessegnon twisting away from Aaron Hughes and producing a top-drawer save from Mark Schwarzer.
It didn’t take long for Fulham to muster a response, however. Much has been made of Moussa Dembele’s emergence in a deeper midfield role this season, but the Belgian was deployed in a more advanced position this afternoon. There are still question marks about his decision making and his goal return, but with the aid of a significant deflection off the unfortunate Michael Turner, Dembele delivered a timely indication of his enduring quality. He sped away from Sunderland tacklers on the half way line and the otherwise excellent Simon Mignolet had little chance once his low 20-yarder had clipped Turner. It flew over the unfortunate goalkeeper and into the top left corner of the net.
Fulham continued to press for the clinching third early in the third with Pavel Pogrebnyak seeing a shot on the half-turn bravely blocked by Turner. From the ensuing corner, Jack Colback did brilliantly to head an improvised effort from Dempsey off the line. Even Stephen Kelly – venturing forward from right back – had a drive saved by Mignolet, who also spread himself superbly to prevent a Damien Duff drive from surprising him at the near post.
A bold change from Martin O’Neill perked up the visitors. The Sunderland boss, seeing another game slip away after such a bright start to his Stadium of Light tenure, replaced centre back Matthew Kilgannon with Frazier Campbell, who joined Nicklas Bendtner in a revamped line-up. The effect was almost immediate. Campbell regularly galloped into space vacated by John Arne Riise as he burst up the Fulham left and Bendtner’s physical presence posed Fulham’s usually disciplined defence with a different kind of problem. The on-loan Arsenal striker spurned a glorious chance of his own before flicking a header across goal to offer Campbell a great chance to equalise but the substitute screwed his shot wide.
Fulham still sauntered forward and might have sealed matters in the closing stages. A swift counter-attack saw Moussa Dembele wriggle his way through several heavy challenges but the Belgian was denied by another excellent Mignolet save. In stoppage time, Campbell fashioned a fantastic chance for himself only for Schwarzer to spread himself superbly at his near post. It was a little too close for comfort but, on an afternoon when the Hammersmith End was rocking, Jol could reflect on his first season at the Cottage with his justified pride.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Kelly, J.A. Riise, Hughes, Hangeland; Diarra, Murphy (Baird 84); Duff, Dembele, Dempsey; Pogrebnyak (Frei 81). Subs (not used): Stockdale, Senderos, Kasami, Kacaniklic, Trotta.
GOALS: Dempsey (12), Dembele (35).
SUNDERLAND (4-4-1-1): Mignolet; O’Shea, Bardsley, Kilgannon (Campbell 70), Turner; Cattermole, Colback, Garnder, McClean; Sessegnon; Ji Dong-Won (Bendtner 59). Subs (not used): Westwood, Bridge, Bramble, Meyler, Elmohamady.
GOAL: Bardsley (34).
REFEREE: Martin Atkinson (West Yorkshire).