Fight and spirit are not two words that would immediately spring to mind when you think of Fulham. Indeed, under Martin Jol and particularly at Craven Cottage, Fulham can often be expected to thrill and delight in a whirl of attacking football. However, on the occasions when the football is not quite as fluent, Jol’s team can often struggle to put victories together. Two cases in point are the 0-5 home reverse to Manchester United last December and the 3-0 defeat to Swansea at Craven Cottage in March.
Thus, for all their swashbuckling and goal-laden victories at home of late, Martin Jol would surely have taken great satisfaction from the way his side battled to a victory over Aston Villa, secured only by a late goal from the unlikely source of Chris Baird.
It certainly was not easy, particularly in the second half where the sprightly attacking play showcased by the Cottagers in the first period petered out somewhat. Indeed, even after Baird had grabbed the winner on his 150th appearance for the club, Villa could well have grabbed an equaliser had substitute Christian Benteke been wearing his shooting boots.
However, the victory took Fulham to their 10th victory in their last 14 fixtures at Craven Cottage and above London rivals Arsenal into 8th position with 14 points from eight games, marking an extremely satisfying start to the season for Martin Jol’s men.
Jol had plumped for a particularly attacking formation, with Dimitar Berbatov alongside Mladen Petric and Hugo Rodallega, and the front three – in the first half at least – showed signs of forging an understanding. Berbatov as ever was magisterial in some of his touches and movement and could well have both scored and laid on several goals as the Cottagers imposed themselves on the opposition.
Jol will also have been pleased by the return of Mahamadou Diarra from injury. There had been fears that the Mali midfield enforcer could miss the majority of the season with a knee injury but his return will boost Fulham’s rather threadbare options in central midfield.
Elsewhere, full debuts were given to Greek veteran Giorgios Karagounis and wide man Ashkan Dejagah, who made a particularly good impression in the latter stages as the home side pushed for the victory.
Jol will also be pleased with the clean sheet, no matter how precarious it may have been. Conceding goals has been a problem for the Cottagers this season and thus the confidence of captain Brede Hangeland at least may be boosted.
However, it was fitting perhaps that the match-winner would be Chris Baird. The Northern Irishman has long been an unsung hero at the Cottage but has enjoyed a good start to the season, relishing in the departures of Clint Dempsey and Moussa Dembele to cement himself in central midfield for both club and country, where he is fresh from Northern Ireland’s stunning 1-1 draw in Portugal.
The Cottagers will need to build on their battling qualities in order to maintain their positive start to the Premier League season.
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