Our final visit to the capital city this season took us into West London, on a bright and breezy Saturday afternoon, to the banks of the River Thames, to take on the surprise package of the 2008-09 campaign, Roy Hodgson’s rejuvenated Fulham.
Craven Cottage was the scene of arguably our most inept and disappointing away performance last season, so hopes were high as we set off from Brum, that we’d not only keep or extend our two points lead over Everton in the battle for fifth place, but gain a little bit of revenge for the 2-1 defeat we suffered there last spring.
Bright sunshine greeted us as we arrived at the stadium, with once again, an excellent travelling claret and blue support in attendance.
I think we all knew full well that we were in for a difficult ninety minutes, Fulham being very impressive on their home patch this season. Only Liverpool and Manchester United having a better home record than The Cottagers, and with the home team chasing points to see them clinch an unlikely finishing position of seventh in the premiership, and more importantly secure entry into the inaugural Europa Cup competition next season, it was obvious that we’d have to be at the very top of our game if we were to return home with a point or three in the bag.
Despite one or two injury concerns following the Hull City game, Martin O’Neill was able to name an unchanged line-up:-
Friedel, Young, Knight, Davies, Shorey; Milner, Petrov, Barry, Young; Carew and Agbonlahor up front. On the bench we had Guzan, Clark, Gardner, Reo-Coker, Sidwell, Heskey and Delfouesno.
Before the teams emerged, Mohamed El Fayed treated the crowd to his usual regular stroll around the ground, waving to his adoring public. He certainly seems to be a popular figure, or maybe the home crowd were merely in jubilant mood on the back of their impressive season.
Brad was called into action early, saving from the impressive Erik Nevland, following a great cross from Konchesky, but three minutes later he was picking the ball out of the back of his net, beaten by a Danny Murphy penalty, after Kamara was bundled over in the box by James Milner. No complaints from the claret and blue following, a definite spot-kick.
Not the start we wanted, far from it, but just three minutes later it was almost 2-0, Konchesky again setting up Nevland, this time the Fulham striker firing just over the bar with Brad well beaten.
Not good, but in the fifteenth minute we were level, and the travelling hordes were celebrating in style. James Milner crossed from the right, the ball eventually falling to Ashley Young, who fired home at the far post.
It was certainly an entertaining opening to the encounter, with the definite promise of more goals to come. Both sides looked impressive when going forward, but hesitant and unsure at the back. John Carew was certainly not having things all his own way, up against Brede Hangeland, the Fulham defender looking exactly the type of imposing figure that we are crying out for at the back. Not sure if Hangeland has signed this new contract offered to him by Fulham, but if not, MON could do a lot worse than tempt The Cottagers with a serious bid in an attempt to secure his services. He looks quality, commanding in the air, and competent on the deck.
Friedel made a great reaction save from ex-Baggie Zoltan Gera’s point blank effort, and he was called into action again shortly after, saving Clint Dempsey’s thirty yard effort.
Up at the other end Ashley Young was turning Pantsil inside out, and you felt that if another Villa goal was to arrive before the break, then it would definitely come via serious involvement from Ashley.
Sure enough, on forty minutes, we came close to the go-ahead goal, following a superb run from Gabby. His cross was met by Ashley, but he fired his effort against the post. Close, but not close enough.
And so to half time, after a very entertaining opening forty-five minutes, both teams playing some decent football, certainly a much more enjoyable spectacle than last seasons drab affair. The game looked as if it could go either way, certainly more goals looked the order of the day.
Sadly though, it seems that if we’re not leaking goals at the death, we are now more than ready and willing to concede them in the opening exchanges of the second forty-five, completely undoing all of the good work we had put into our first half effort.
Barely thirty seconds into the second period, an attempted clearance found Kamara, and he joyfully fired home from the edge of the box. Not the start we wanted, but we looked as if our minds were still back in the dressing room, and the home team took full advantage of our slack and sloppy play.
It got worse when on the hour mark, Kamara scored his second goal of the afternoon, back-heeling the ball past Brad Friedel, following a Hangeland knock down. Brad had no chance, but once again shoddy defending was the root cause.
In a desperate move O’Neill decided to haul off Luke Young and Nicky Shorey, replacing them with Nigel Reo-Coker and Emile Heskey, switching Gareth Barry and James Milner to the role of attacking full-backs.
The changes made little difference. Our heads had gone down, and in truth the players simply didn’t look up for it. They certainly showed no signs that they believed for one minute that they could turn this mess around.
We were well beaten, and got what we deserved. Fulham were full value for the three points, and on our second half showing we were somewhat lucky to escape with just a 3-1 reversal. So disappointing, particularly as once again the Villa supporters had travelled from the midlands in impressive numbers.
The players in truth looked as if they just want the campaign over and done with. They were merely going through the motions out there, lacking leadership and direction. First half we gave as good as we got, second half we just rolled over. Admittedly the second Fulham goal was a huge blow, but we lacked concentration from the off, and simply hadn’t switched back on following the half time interval.
Once 2-1 down, there didn’t look anyway back. No inspiration or sparkle. That my friends, simply isn’t good enough.
My marks out of ten:-
Friedel – 6
L Young – 5
Knight – 5
Davies – 5
Shorey – 4
Milner – 6
Petrov – 6
Barry – 6
A Young – 6
Carew – 5
Agbonlahor – 5
Heskey 64min – 4
Reo-Coker 64min – 5