A second-half strike from the returning Dimitar Berbatov was enough to secure a surprise win for Fulham at White Hart Lane this afternoon as Tottenham slipped to their third successive Premier League defeat and loosened their grip on a Champions’ League spot. Berbatov’s eleventh league goal of the season, superbly finished following a swift counter-attack, and some resolute defending from Martin Jol’s side saw Fulham record their first win at White Hart Lane in ten years since a Barry Hayles’ double claimed three points for Chris Coleman back in August 2003.
Tottenham looked leggy and lethargic after their epic European tussle with Inter Milan went all the way to extra time on Thursday. Gareth Bale started the contest, but was largely anonymous, and seemed troubled by an Achilles tendon problem in his right foot that saw him pull up on a number of occasions. Andre Vilas-Boas’ decision to play Benoit Assou-Ekotto on the left side of midfield failed to provide much in the way of a supply for the disappointing Emmanuel Adebayor, who was superb nullified by the excellent Philippe Senderos at the heart of the Fulham defence. It wasn’t until Jermain Defoe arrived on the hour mark that the home side offered much of a goal threat, with Mark Schwarzer making a pair of outstanding saves to deny the England striker an equaliser in the closing stages.
Fulham were disciplined and well-organised, set up to contain the kind of adventurous Tottenham, who never really materialised. Martin Jol had never tasted victory against Tottenham and, although he was more inclined to focus on strengthening his own side’s survival prospects in the build-up to the game, the success must have been sweet given the manner of his very public departure from White Hart Lane. Jol’s current charges are much improved from the side that seemed to be drifting into a relegation battle at Christmas, having taken eleven points from their last eighteen, to all but secure their Premier League status for another season.
It was the stand-out contender for Fulham’s player of the season award, Sascha Riether, who had much to do with this unlikely victory. The former German full-back, who enjoyed an unhappy spell as a holding midfielder as FC Koln were relegated from the Bundesliga last season, has been outstanding since arriving at Fulham on loan in the summer and he showcased both aspects of his game today, first clearing a goalbound Bale header off the line inside the first five minutes, and then breaking forward to set up Fulham’s winner seven minutes after the break. Riether, who scored his first Premier League goal at Sunderland last week, raced onto a clever pass from the impressive Ashkan Dejagah, and sent over the perfect cross, which Berbatov flicked past the stranded Hugo Lloris with the minimum of fuss. Mindful of his surroundings, Berbatov steadfastly refused to celebrate – and it was fitting that Riether became the focus of his team-mates’ jubilant celebrations.
Fulham have let far too many leads slip this season, but their response to going in front was impressive. Brede Hangeland berated himself for putting a free header at the far post wide minutes after Berbatov’s goal and, although the visitors’ attacks were limited in the minutes that remained, Dejagah spurned a glorious opportunity at the back post as he failed to get the required connection with his head on Bryan Ruiz’s inviting centre. They kept the back door firmly shut, with only substitute Tom Carroll showing the kind of inventive passing that might have unlocked a tightly-packed defence.
For all of Tottenham’s second half possession and pressure, the chances were few and far between. Clint Dempsey, introduced at half-time as Vilas-Boas reshaped his side after captain Michael Dawson was forced off with a hamstring injury, buzzed around behind Adebayor but his most noteworthy contribution was to crumple to the floor in search of a penalty after colliding with Riether. Defoe, who helped himself to a brace in the reverse fixture at Craven Cottage, could have had a similar impact here were it not for Schwarzer’s heroics. Shortly after coming on, Defoe drove an instinctive effort straight at the sprawling Australian but in stoppage time, the 40 year-old needed all of his agility to keep out the Spurs striker from close range after Bale had burst away from John Arne Riise.
TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR (4-2-3-1): Lloris; Naughton, Vertonghen, Dawson (Dempsey 45), Caulker; Parker, Dembele (Carroll 67); Sigurdssson (Defoe 62), Assou-Ekkoto, Bale; Adebayor. Subs (not used): Friedel, Walker, Livermore, Holtby.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Riether, Riise, Senderos, Hangeland; Karagounis (Enoh 77), Sidwell; Dejagah, Duff, Ruiz (Emanuelson 90); Berbatov. Subs (not used): Etheridge, Hughes, Richardson, Rodallega, Petric.
GOAL: Berbatov (52).
REFEREE: Mike Jones (Chesire).