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Greening grabs vital win

After five straight league defeats on the spin, there was a sense of foreboding hanging over Craven Cottage tonight. The absence of seven first-team players for the visit of Portsmouth, boosted by the return of their sizeable African contingent, would hardly have lifted Fulham’s spirit. Portsmouth were targeting this as a potential opportunity to pick up precious points in their survival bid and Avram Grant’s side, much improved under the Israeli’s quiet leadership, could feel more than mildly miffed that they didn’t manage to take anything to show for their adventurous display this evening.

For a long while, it looked like another dreary display from Fulham, who have lacked any real effervescence since the pre-Christmas period, and the casual observer would have had to conclude that it was the home side who languished at the bottom of the Premier League pile on the evidence of a first half dominated by the visitors. They could have been well clear by half time were it not for some powderpuff finishing, which threatens to seriously undermine Grant’s attempts to keep the club above water.

Credit to the players, who shrugged off their fourth delayed pay cheque of the season, and delivered a performance that matched the passion displayed by their vocal travelling supporters. Grant made his attentions plain by going with three forwards – one of whom, Frederic Piquionne, missed a glorious opportunity to put Pompey in front when he shot straight at Mark Schwarzer after Jamie O’Hara’s pass sent him clean through. The French striker looked suspiciously offside but there was an element of fortune about Fulham’s escape too as the ball bounced off Schwarzer’s backside and away to safety.

O’Hara, rumoured to be a transfer target for Hodgson back in the summer, was at the heart of Portsmouth’s best moves and Kevin-Prince Boateng was proving particularly difficult for Fulham to pick up as he darted into the space between defence and midfield. Boateng sent a scorching half-volley wide and Fulham’s sleepy demeanour meant that the south coast were winning an alarming number of second balls.

The hosts threatened only sporadically in the first half. Aaron Hughes nearly notched his first goal for the club with a header that David James saved and Brede Hangeland made a nuisance of himself from a corner. Stefano Okaka, who looked speedy and yet raw on his debut, then missed a glorious chance to make the perfect start to his Fulham career, glancing wide from spitting distance when he seemed easier to score after Jonathan Greening had diverted Danny Murphy’s cross goalwards. The crestfallen Italian’s reaction, a rueful shake of the head, told you all you needed to know.

Portsmouth were far from finished. After a bout of pinball in the Fulham penalty area, Piquionne’s shot bounced back for O’Hara only for the on-loan midfielder to blaze haplessly wide. Hodgson needed to make himself heard at half time as Fulham had ceded far too much ground to their struggling opponents. Okaka looked able to stretch the Portsmouth defence but at times both he and Bobby Zamora drifted wide leaving an alarming lack of white shirts in the penalty area.

Fulham made a more promising start to the second period, forcing a couple of corners, and Zamora’s aerial presence looked to be unsettling the Pompey defence. The impressive Nicky Shorey, who was eager to get forward and looked as if he’d been part of the Fulham back line all season, offered greater width than had been seen for a while at the Cottage and Fulham almost profited. Zamora headed straight at James from a floated centre and then nodded agonisingly wide from a Damien Duff cross.

Erik Nevland was introduced in an attempt to repeat his heroics from the bench in this fixture last year and he very nearly made an immediate impact. With his first touch, an ambitious volley from an acute angle brushed the side netting and there was a sense that Fulham were beginning to get on top. Credit to Hodgson here too. His substitutions – bringing on Kagisho Dikgacoi and David Elm, who offered another lively cameo – injected more energy into Fulham, which was pleasing given his reluctance to shake things up in the past. Still, there was little in the way of penetration, and relief was the primary emotion when the decisive goal arrived.

Duff produced one of his sudden bursts of pace to reach a loose ball and drive into the penalty area after Portsmouth failed to clear their lines. His cross eluded several blue shirts to reach Greening, a surprise starter ahead of Bjorn Helge Riise, who calmly stroked his first Fulham goal past James from eight yards. There were a few nervy moments – as well as a nice acknowledgment of the Hammersmith End from Steve Finnan – towards the end as Portsmouth pressed in search of an equaliser, but Fulham held on to climb back into the top half of the table.

FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Kelly (Dikgacoi 55), Shorey, A. Hughes, Hangeland; Baird, Murphy, Greening, Duff; Zamora (Elm 78), Okaka (Nevland 70). Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Smalling, Stoor, Riise.

GOAL: Greening (75).

PORTSMOUTH (4-3-3): James; Finnan, Belhadj, Ben-Haim, Wilson; Boateng, Basinas (Owusu-Abeyie 82), O’Hara; Yebda, Piquionne (Webber 62), Dindane. Subs (not used): Ashdown, Vanden Borre, Rocha, R. Hughes, Mullins.

BOOKED: Ben-Haim.

REFEREE: Anthony Taylor (Wythenshawe)

ATTENDANCE: 21,934

Fulham v Portsmouth: Stats

  • Fulham have won three and drawn one of their last four Premier League meetings with Portsmouth.
  • Danny Murphy scored the goal that saved Fulham from relegation at Fratton Park in 2008 – the Fulham captain hasn’t scored since December.
  • Fulham have lost their last five league games and have not scored a Premier League goal in 275 minutes.
  • Portsmouth have managed just a single win – against Liverpool – in their last seven league matches.
  • Avram Grant has not lost a game to Fulham, although the Whites did draw his first game in charge at Chelsea after the departure of Jose Mourinho.
  • Portsmouth have the better of the head-to-head between the sides: they’ve won 23 games, there have been 18 draws and Fulham have won just 13.

Up next: Portsmouth (h)

At the time, losing our original date for this game to the weather didn’t seem like such a hardship. Fulham were in the midst of a poor run in the league, had lost key players to injury and were nursing a couple back and the transfer window might allow Roy to bring in a couple of new faces. Boy, how wrong we were. The bad run only continued, the injury crisis just worsened and, bar a last-minute spot of wheeling and dealing, it was a pretty quiet January. Portsmouth’s plight may not have got any better but at least Avram Grant will have his large contingent of African players available tonight.

Coming out of the ground on Saturday with a mate of mine and his father, we mulled over the prospects for this game. Portsmouth would be a tough nut to crack: they wouldn’t just roll over and die. For a start, the fans deserve more and Grant’s a good coach. A few more defeats and we’d be right in the thick of a relegation battle. The players weren’t playing with the kind of scrapping spirit that suggested they would relish the thought at the moment. That might be the glass half full scenario but it’s not exactly unthinkable. Points on the board are needed – and soon.

Hodgson’s task got just that bit tougher on Tuesday afternoon when Zoltan Gera tweaked his knee in training. The Hungarian reckons it’s not too serious but we’ll have to wait for the doctor’s view. The news that Andy Johnson might miss the rest of the season hardly brightened Hodgson’s mood – indeed, he was wondering whether loaning out Diomansy Kamara was a good idea. With Dickson Etuhu yet to return from Angola, that took the number of first-team players unavailable to seven.

Looking for the positives, it gives fringe players a chance to shine. Bjorn Helge Riise was terribly disappointing at Tottenham the other week, looking like a frightened rabbit caught in the headlights. In the absence of Clint Dempsey, he’s the only real alternative to the injured Gera and Simon Davies down the right. He’s produced good performances in front of Stephen Kelly in Europe and, as perhaps our best crosser of a ball behind Davies, could be a potent weapon tonight. Let’s hope he rises to the challenge.

The injury situation means that Roy also has little choice but to throw the new boys straight in. Paul Konchesky will be out for a while, which will give Nicky Shorey the run of first-team football he craves. Forest fans have been raving about our new loan signing, only kept out of the Villa team by a left back I’d take to South Africa (Stephen Warnock), and furious that they didn’t make a serious attempt to extend his emergency loan. The introduction of the former Reading man, capped for England in the not-too-distant past, should allow Kelly, who looked a little lost at left back on Saturday, to move across to the other side of the defence.

Stefano Okaka delivered the best possible send off on Sunday, scoring the goal that kept Roma’s feint title hopes alive as a substitute, and arrived in London full of confidence. He’s pretty raw but has plenty of pace and a point to prove. Hodgson says he’s been tracking Okaka since before the Europa League group stage draw and he does have a track record of bringing on young players – the fact that he and the Roma striker can converse in Italian will help too.

Tonight will also offer further evidence of any agreement between Manchester United and Fulham about Chris Smalling’s first-team participation. It’s not unheard of in transfers like this that the player is committed to get some more experience by the terms of the transfer and Smalling’s still developing as a talent. That much was shown by the way he was brushed aside by Gabby Agbonlahor on Saturday. Our defence has looked out of kilter without Hughes and Hangeland, who has also seemed out-of-sorts lately, in the centre. The visit of Portsmouth is the perfect opportunity to remedy that.

There’s been talk of replacing Chris Baird in midfield, but I’d keep faith with the Ballymena boy. He’s far more dynamic in that role than people realise and has forged a good partnership with Danny Murphy, who showed signs of rediscovering his form on Saturday. Pompey will be up for the fight, as Jamie O’Hara suggested, and have enough quality in their line-up to prolong our miserable run tonight. David James, having seen his understudy move to Stoke on deadline day, will start in goal while Nadir Belhadj, John Yebda and Kanu could all return this evening, although former Fulham pair Michael Brown and Papa Bouba Diop have been ruled out with injury.

MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Kelly, Shorey, Hughes, Hangeland; Baird, Murphy, Riise, Duff; Zamora, Okaka. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Smalling, Stoor, Dikgacoi, Greening, Nevland, Elm.

Fulham v Portsmouth postponed

According to this, the game’s off tomorrow:

A club spokesman has told The News the match will be postponed because of the freezing temperatures this week.

Fulham have been working around the clock to try to get the match on, with Craven Cottage not having undersoil heating.

However, the main concern was for fans getting to the match in south west London.

A rearranged date has yet to be confirmed.