Fulham might still sit bottom of the Premier League tonight, but Ashkan Dejagah’s winner has breathed new life into their survival bid, which appeared doomed after a feeble display at Cardiff last weekend. Felix Magath, Fulham’s third manager of the season, shuffled his pack in response to that defeat and his reshaped side delivered a performance of fight, hunger and application that more than merited his first win since replacing Rene Meulensteen at Craven Cottage.
With goals a necessity, the German’s decision to plump for youth over experience and expense in attack was a damning indictment on the form and fitness of Darren Bent and Kostas Mitroglou. Bent’s underwhelming displays during his loan spell from Aston Villa have seen him almost as anonymous as the club’s record signing, but the fact that neither made the matchday squad still raised a few eyebrows. Teenager Cauley Woodrow, who made his debut in Wales last weekend, was handed the responsibility of leading the line on his own and the nineteen year-old’s energetic display fully repaid his manager’s faith.
Magath also opted to replace Maarten Stekelenburg, responsible for Cardiff’s second goal last week, with David Stockdale in goal and shifted John Heitinga to right back, with Fernando Amorebieta partnering captain Brede Hangeland at the heart of the defence. In midfield, William Kvist added a bit of ballast in place of the injured Scott Parker, with Pajtim Kasami and Alex Kacaniklic picked to raid down the flanks. Alan Pardew, who watched helplessly from a west London hotel after his altercation with Hull’s David Meyler, made two enforced changes with Fabricio Coloccini and Pappis Cisse replacing the injured Mathieu Debuchy and Loic Remy.
The home side made the brighter start. Woodrow was a matter of inches away from connecting with Lewis Holtby’s flighted free-kick as Newcastle were preocuppied with containing Hangeland, before the Fulham captain failed to reach Kacaniklic’s dangerous corner. The Swedish winger wasn’t far away with an ambitious effort from 35 yards, before Holtby brought the very best out of Tim Krul, who turned away his curling effort from the edge of the box. Stockdale, a spectator for much of the first half, made a splendid save to preserve parity nine minutes before the break, springing away to his right to push a close-range finish from Cisse around the post.
Fulham must have felt it was destined not to be their day when they were denied two goals in quick succession. An offside flag ruled out Kasami’s instinctive finish after Steve Sidwell had strayed beyond the Newcastle back line to head a free-kick back across goal, whilst Heitinga’s thumping drive from distance was ruled not to have crossed the line – and although Woodrow ensured the ball did finish up in the net, his finish was chalked off by another offside flag. The visitors should have added to Fulham’s sense of frustration. Cisse galloped clear after collecting a horribly misdirected pass from Kvist, but Stockdale spread himself well to keep the contest level.
That proved crucial as Fulham found the breakthrough with their next attack. Substitute Ashkan Dejagah’s speculative shot from the left edge of the penalty area crept under Tim Krul’s body and into the corner to send Craven Cottage into ecstacy. The Newcastle goalkeeper will feel he should have saved such a tame shot, but Fulham’s endeavour was finally rewarded. Magath sent out Sascha Riether to shore up the midfield and the towering Dan Burn replaced Dejagah after the goalscorer tweaked his groin, but the league’s worst defence held out with few alarms until late into injury time, when Krul was incensed that Howard Webb didn’t award a penalty for handball against Heitinga from a late Newcastle corner.
Survival is still a long way off for Magath and Fulham, but this was progress. Their first win since New Year’s Day brought the Whites back towards their relegation rivals and a first league clean sheet since December 8th hinted at the kind of resoluteness that will be required at Manchester City next weekend. Belief might have been in short supply prior to kick off at Craven Cottage, but by 5pm optimism abounded.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Stockdale; Heitinga, Richardson, Hangeland, Amorebieta; Kvist, Sidwell; Holtby (Riether 80), Kacaniklic, Kasami (Dejagah 60; Burn 86); Woodrow. Subs (not used): Stekelenburg, Riise, Roberts, Rodallega.
GOAL: Dejagah (67).
NEWCASTLE UNITED (4-4-2): Krul; Yanga-Mbiwa, Dummett, Williamson, Coloccini; Anita (Marveaux 81), Tiote, Sissoko, Gouffran; de Jong (Armstrong 85), Cisse (Shola Ameobi 71). Subs (not used): Alnwick, Haidara, Taylor, Gosling.
REFEREE: Howard Webb (South Yorkshire).