As a manager ending 2012 under pressure, Martin Jol enjoyed his return to the Hawthorns on New Year’s Day. The Dutchman, who spent two years as a player at West Brom, watched his Fulham side secure their first top-flight success at high-flying Albion thanks to a second half strike from Alex Kacaniklic. The Swedish winger’s clever finish was the perfect response after the visitors had surrendered the lead fashioned for them by Dimitar Berbatov and halted Fulham’s worrying descent down the Premier League table.
Introducing Kacaniklic in prace of Turkish teenager Kerim Frein was Jol’s only change to the side that succumbed to Swansea on Boxing Day and Jol would have been delighted with the way his side made light of their recent struggles in a composed and calm performance. Most impressively for a team that has dropped sixteen points from winning positions already this campaign, Fulham failed to buckle after Romelu Lukaku’s equaliser threatened to rouse West Brom shortly after half time and Kacaniklic kept his cool when he reached a raking ball from Byran Ruiz and to roll home his third goal of the second after Ben Foster had rashly rushed from his line.
West Brom would have viewed the visit of a Fulham side who started the day just four points from the relegation zone as a perfect opportunity to begin their assault on the top six after an outstanding first four months of the season. Yet, despite a noisy night in Birmingham hotel and their dismal recent run, it was Fulham who settled the brighter, limiting the Baggies to half chances from set plays. Dimitar Berbatov had already lashed the game’s best chance over the bar from 20 yards after collecting a stray backpass from Chris Brunt before the Bulgarian striker started and finished the flowing counter-attack that gave the Cottagers the lead their start more than merited. Berbatov’s floated pass from midfield sent Ashkan Dejagah away down the right and arrived to clinically convert an inviting cut-back after the Iranian international had tricked his way past Liam Ridgewell.
Berbatov had scored his first Fulham goals during a September stroll against the Baggies and it appeared as though Steve Clarke’s charges had learnt little from his first defeat as a manager. They allowed the former Manchester United man plenty of space to play the game at his own pace and there was none of the intensity that has made the Hawthorns such a difficult place for opponents to get a result this season. Lukaku laboured as an isolated front man for much of the first half and the Baggies’ best opportunities came in the form of headers that Gabriel Tamas, Gareth Macauley and Yusuf Mulumbu sent wide.
It didn’t take long for West Brom to rectify the situation after the restart. Marc-Antoine Fortune found Billy Jones, who burst past Matthew Briggs on his way into the penalty area and the full-back’s low cross was bundled home by Lukaku for his seventh goal in seven league starts since opting to join the Baggies ahead of Fulham on loan from Chelsea. The Belgian might have strayed offside, but the goal stood and his equaliser appeared to have altered the game’s momentum. Lukaku was inches away from adding a second moments later when he shrugged off Aaron Hughes and hit the outside of the post, before testing David Stockdale with a low shot. Mark Schwarzer’s understudy made a fine reaction save and former Fulham midfielder Zoltan Gera struck the near post with the rebound before Hughes athletically headed Chris Brunt’s drive over the crossbar.
With West Brom pushing for a second, Fulham caught Albion by surprise at the other end. Ruiz clipped a clever pass over the horribly square West Brom back four, locating Kacaniklic’s clever run between Macauley and Jones, and the Swede scampered around Foster to finish with his weaker right foot. Clarke threw on Shane Long and Peter Odemwingie in search of a second leveller but Fulham belied their poor defensive record to hang onto their first away win since September.
WEST BROMWICH ALBION (4-2-3-1): Foster; Jones, Ridgewell, Tamas, Macauley; Mulumbu, Brunt (Thorne 84); Fortune (Odemwingie 66), Gera (Long 66), Morrison; Lukaku. Subs (not used): Myhill, Jara, Dawson, Rosenberg.
GOAL: Lukaku (49).
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Stockdale; Riether, Briggs, Hughes, Hangeland; Karagounis (Rodallega 76), Sidwell; Dejagah, Kacaniklic, Ruiz; Berbatov (Senderos 90). Subs (not used): Somogyi, Baird, Richardson, Kasami, Frei.
GOALS: Berbatov (39), Kacaniklic (58).
REFEREE: Mike Dean (Wirral).