It was probably one of the simplest finishes of Steve Sidwell’s career but the manner of his last-gasp leveller mattered little. Fulham, far from fluent on an afternoon that should have belonged to a rampaging Everton side who dominated another absorbing encounter at Craven Cottage, celebrated a late, lucky break that saw them plunder a point like they’d snatched all three. A disbelieving David Moyes confessed afterwards that the draw felt like a defeat after a brace from Marouane Fellaini seemed set to break Toffees’ sequence of stalemates.
It was easy to understand the Everton manager’s dismay. His side saw more of the ball and passed it prettily too, but left London with only a point to show for their 27 shots. Just a look at the scoreline tells you that Moyes’ men didn’t extend Mark Schwarzer enough. Nikita Jelavic, who had so terrorised Fulham when Everton put four past the Whites in April, was guilty of the most glaring proligacy. The usually reliable Croatian forward had already nodded wide whilst unmarked at the far post before he skied wastefully over the crossbar having beaten the stranded Schwarzer to a horribly misjudged backpass from Chris Baird.
Being level at the break would have been bad enough but Everton actually trailed after Tim Howard only managed to push Bryan Ruiz’s curling 25-yard free-kick on to the far post. The American’s tame touch saw the ball cannon off the woodwork, strike him on the back and roll into the net. Fulham looked bright and inventive with Ruiz, restored to the starting line-up after a brilliant display as a second half substitute at Reading, linking up nicely with Dimitar Berbatov, but if the goal was meant to spark a sustained spell of home pressure, Everton misread the script. They penned their hosts back for prolonged periods and Fulham failed to deal with Fellaini’s aerial supremacy as well as his hulking physical presence, but failed to find a finishing touch. Such was Phil Jagielka’s frustration with what was going on ahead of him, the England centre back ventured forward and lashed a drive towards goal that whizzed past the far post by a whisker from fully thirty yards.
Fulham’s resistence was game, but with Ruiz and Berbatov starved of meaningful serivce, they struggled to pose too many problems further up the pitch. Everton were on the front foot once again in the second period, pressing forward from almost the first whistle. Ironically, Fellaini’s first goal arrived during Fulham’s first real spell of sustained pressure with Berbatov shooting wide and Ruiz seeing a goalbound effort bravely blocked.
Everton’s attacks still carried the greater threat and the equaliser their endeavour deserved came as the visitors clinically capitalised on an opening fashioned by excellent approach play down the right flank. Coleman’s clever pass released Kevin Mirallas down the right and the Belgian winger’s low cross was fiercely drilled home by his compatriot Fellaini from eight yards out. Howard made a smart save at his near post from Berbatov after the Bulgarian had sprung the offside trap, but that moment apart, after the equaliser it was all Everton.
Fellaini’s clever pass sent Jelavic clear but the striker stabbed woefully wide, coming under important pressure from Sascha Riether, and Mirallas also missed the target from a promising position after leaving Mahamadou Diarra for dead in the penalty area with a sharp turn. Moyes may have been irked by Steven Gerrard’s midweek assertion that his side favoured the long ball, but he would’ve appreciated the efficiency of the goal that looked to have turned the contest in his team’s favour. Jagielka’s forward punt saw Fellaini bully his way past Aaron Hughes after bringing the ball down expertly and send a low shot past Schwarzer’s right hand in the blink of an eye. Route one, but the right option on this ocassion.
Fulham looked visibly deflated and rather than recovering, it was Everton who appeared more likely to extend their lead as Fellaini twice came close to completing a hat-trick, seeing one deflected effort come back off the post before Schwarzer superbly stopped a venomous volley and substitute Stephen Naismith saw his shot scrambled off the line by Baird. Moyes sent on Sylvain Distin to secure the lead, but, remarkably, the defender’s only contribution was to retrieve the ball from the Hammersmith End net after Fulham found an equaliser in the final minute of normal time. Riether raced to the byline, reaching a pass from Ashkan Dejagah, and the German’s low cut-back located Berbatov four yards out in front of an empty net. Inexplicably, the Bulgarian failed to find the net, but Sidwell stabbed home at the far post to steal a most unlikely point.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Riether, J.A. Riise (Dejagah 59), Hughes, Hangeland; Baird, Diarra (Petric 76); Kacaniklic (Sidwell 68), Duff, Ruiz; Berbatov. Subs (not used): Stockdale, Senderos, Karagounis, Rodallega.
BOOKED: Riise, Diarra.
GOALS: Howard (o.g. 7), Sidwell (90).
EVERTON (4-4-1-1): Howard; Coleman, Baines, Heitenga, Jagielka; Neville, Osman, Pienaar, Mirallas (Naismith 79); Fellaini; Jelavic (Distin 89). Subs (not used): Mucha, Duffy, Hitzlsperger, Oviedo, Gueye.
GOALS: Fellaini (55, 72).
REFEREE: Neil Swarbrick (Lancashire).