They say good teams grind out results even when the peformances are far from fluent. Fulham’s steady progression under Martin Jol has seen them play far more scintilating football at Craven Cottage this season, but the Dutch boss beamed with delight after his side denied Aston Villa a battling point six minutes from time. On the day that the likes of Dimitar Berbatov and Mladen Petric returned to the Fulhajm starting line-up, it was the unlikely figure of Chris Baird, making his 150th appearance for the Whites, who settled the contest, guiding John Arne Riise’s corner past Brad Guzan at the near post.
Fulham were certainly more enterprising than their visitors, whose miserable run without an away win is now extended to fourteen matches, but for all their pretty possession Jol’s side failed to regularly stretch Guzan. Most of the hosts’ exquisite approach play flowed through the returning Berbatov, who was buzzing around the Villa box with intent inside the first two minutes. The Bulgarian did force a stretching save from Guzan after working an opening with Kieran Richardson and the former Sunderland midfielder saw his own effort pushed away by the goalkeeper moments later after Berbatov’s ball had sent the impressive Sascha Riether raiding into the penalty area.
Jol’s decision to field an attacking line-up which saw Berbatov floating behind Petric but also encouraged Richardson and Hugo Rodallega to get forward appeared to surprise Villa, who were the slower to settle. But after Fulham’s initial flurry they failed to find the penetration and the finishing touch to unduly worry Guzan. Baird headed wide from a delightful Berbatov cross and Hangeland headed over from a corner, before Paul Lambert’s side began to exert some influence on the contest. Gabby Agbonlahor made Villa’s first opening all by himself, cutting in from the left and shooting from just outside the box after being allowed to carry the ball across the area, but his deflected effort was smothered by a sprawling Schwarzer.
Lambert opted to start with Darren Bent in attack, supported by Agbonlahor and Brett Holman, but the one-time England forward endured a trying afternoon. Desperate to make an impact after being left out of Villa’s last two fixtures, Bent was largely isolated and when he did finally have a sight of goal, he couldn’t capitalise. He sent one header harmlessly wide before being denied another opportunity by a fine saving tackle from Steve Sidwell and it was little surprise when Lambert opted to end Bent’s afternoon early by introducing Belgian international Christian Benteke from the bench as time ticked away.
Villa had actually started the second period nin enterprising fashion with Agbonlahor sending a header over from Matthew Lowton’s dangerous cross, but it took the arrival of substitute Charles N’Zogbia to add the energy and vitality to threaten Fulham’s rearguard. The home side pressed for a winner but Rodallega inexplicably miscued at the back post after being found by a Berbatov lofted pass and the Bulgarian sliced an acrobatic overhead kick over the bar when the Colombian returned the favour.
Jol’s summoning of Ashkan Dejagah from the sidelines to make his Fulham debut enlivened proceedings. The Iranian international immediately looked to attack his full-back and Guzan did well to beat away a fierce drive from the former Wolsburg winger after Baird and Sidwell combined to create the opening. Just as it looked as though Villa might record a morale-boosting point, Baird burst past three defenders to turn home Riise’s corner with six minutes left. Even after that setback, Lambert’s side should have levelled the contest only for Benteke to fail to find the net from N’Zogbia’s cut back.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Riether, J.A. Riise, Hughes, Hangeland; Baird, Sidwell (Karagounis 84); Richardson (Dejagah 70), Rodallega, Berbatov; Petric (Diarra 64). Subs (not used): Stockdale, Senderos, Kasami, Kacaniklic.
BOOKED: J.A. Riise.
GOAL: Baird (84).
ASTON VILLA (4-2-3-1): Guzan; Baker (Lichaj 62), Lowton, Vlaar, Bennett; El Ahmadi, Delph; Agbonlahor, Holman, Ireland (N’Zogbia 66); Bent (Benteke 75). Subs (not used): Given, Bannan, Albrighton, Weimann.
BOOKED: Baker, El Ahmadi.
REFEREE: Chris Foy (Birkenhead).