As far as Martin Jol was concerned the only silver lining in Fulham’s dismal defeat at West Ham a fortnight ago was that he had been reunited with Dimitar Berbatov. ‘The only positive was to see his class and quality again,’ smiled a wistful Jol. ‘I’ve missed it’. Even the Bulgarian couldn’t overturn a half-time 3-0 deficit at the Boleyn Ground but, after being handed a first Premier League start in six months by his new boss, Berbatov wasted little time in demonstrating just how he might enjoy life at Craven Cottage as a first-half brace ended West Brom’s unbeaten start under Steve Clarke.
Albion arrived in the capital confident that could end a 45 year wait for a league win at Fulham and Clarke resisted the temptation to tinker with the side that surprised Everton on September 1, which meant that Cottage cult hero Zoltan Gera spent the afternoon being seranded from the sidelines. The visitors didn’t see too much of the ball in the early exchanges but still fashioned the first chances with James Morrison drawing a fine save out of Mark Schwarzer from 20 yards after the Australian goalkeeper had easily fielded an early sighter from Peter Odemwingie. Those warnings seemed to spur Fulham into life as their pretty passing patterns had lacked penetration before Alex Kacaniklic came to the fore.
The Swedish international has started the new season the way he finished the last, having forced his way into the Fulham first eleven after an impressive loan spell with Watford, and he made both of Berbatov’s first two goals for his new club. The former Liverpool winger surged beyond Billy Jones, whom he tormented all afternoon, into the penalty area before Fulham’s new striker curled his cute cut-back around a helpless Ben Foster from fifteen yards. A matter of seconds after Jones had been denied a chance to equalise at the other end by a fine saving tackle from Aaron Hughes, Kacaniklic was running at the unfortunate full-back again and after Jones’ rash decision to dive in, Roger East had little option but to award a spot-kick, which Berbatov dispatched with the minimum of fuss. The former Manchester United man might have been celebrating a first half hat-trick had he steered a free header the right side of the post from Kacaniklic’s inviting cross four minutes earlier.
In between the two goals that made West Brom’s task uneviable, Odemwingie was sent off for an inexplicable kick at Sascha Riether’s groin in full view of btoh the referee and his assistant. There was little prospect of the Baggies turning the tide, so confidently were Fulham stroking the ball around at this point, but the Nigerian’s moment of madness, sparked by a soft confession of possession to the German defender, made things far more difficult for his team-mates. Clarke shuffled his pack, sending on-loan striker Romelu Lukaku and club captain Chris Brunt on at half-time, and both tested Mark Schwarzer in a sustained spell of second-half pressure from the visitors, but Fulham always looked likely to add to their advantage, with Chris Baird’s raking passes inviting Hugo Rodallega and Damien Duff to make the most of their numerical advantage.
Berbatov sent an ambitious effort over from the corner of the area, before two fabulous reaction saves from Foster denied Duff a deserved goal on his 350th Premier League appearance. The one-time England international showed terrific reflexes to get his gloves to Hugo Rodallega’s powerful drive – which deflected off Jonas Olsson on its way towards goal and susbtitute Pajtim Kasami sent a cross-cum-shot right across the face of goal.
The third did duly arrive a minute from time despite Foster’s best efforts: the goalkeeper palmed away Kasami’s cross, but was stranded once Rodallega’s header came back off the crossbar, allowing Steve Sidwell a simple tap-in. Jol smiled broadly and sent on young Alex Smith for his Fulham debut, but his attention will now turn towards a difficult trip to Wigan in a week’s time and ending the Whites’ unfathomable away day blues.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Riether, J.A. Riise, Hughes, Hangeland; Baird, Sidwell; Duff (Smith 90), Kacanaklic (Kasami 84); Berbatov; Rodallega. Subs (not used): Stockdale, Kelly, Briggs, Karagounis, Trotta.
GOALS: Berbatov (32, pen 45), Sidwell (89).
WEST BROMWICH ALBION (4-2-3-1): Foster; Jones, Ridgewell, McAuley, Olsson; Yacob (Rosenberg 76), Mulumbu; Odemwingie, Morrison, Fortune (Lukaku 45); Long (Brunt 45). Subs (not used): Myhill, Dawson, Dorrans, Gera.
SENT OFF: Odemwingie (38).
REFEREE: Roger East