Steed steals points
Monday, April 24th, 2006
Goals win games, and Steed Malbranque's clinical finish proved to be the decisive factor against Wigan in a game that never looked to be going Fulham's way last night.
Chris Coleman asked for a strong finish to the season, Ray Houghton told Fulham they must give the fans something to cheer about for next season, and Fulham ground out a result worthy of pleasing all sides.
All sides that is, except for Paul Jewell's Wigan, who somehow left Craven Cottage last night with far less than they deserved.
Wigan registered 11 shots on target and 5 shots off target over the ninety minutes, and they will be bitterly disappointed that they did not take a single chance.
Fulham literally stole the three points that confirmed their Premiership status but they certainly did it the hard way.
For large parts of the game Wigan completely dominated, and not discounting a couple of counter attacks and the decisive break away that led to Malbranque's goal right on half-time, the Latics effectively set up camp in the Fulham half during the first 45 minutes.
Wigan started the game missing their rock at the back, Arjan De Zeeuw whilst Fulham had to accommodate for Bocanegra's absence by playing Ian Pearce beside Zat Knight.
The game started very tightly, with both teams closing all the space down quickly.
It was Fulham that looked more dangerous though with Malbranque collecting the ball 25 yards from goal and shooting low at Mike Pollitt, but the keeper was more than equal to it.
Zat Knight then passed straight to McCulloch but his pass was over-hit.
Wigan seemed to be looking to exploit Fulham down the left-hand side and Bridge and Pearce time and again were left exposed with Boa Morte drifting infield more instead of protecting the left wing.
Bridge then gave the ball away to Teale on the edge of the area and as his pass deflected off Pearce he latched on to it and struck low and hard right-footed but Niemi managed to get just enough on it to run it round the post.
Fulham then created a couple of chances for themselves. A Wayne Bridge cross was well met in the air by Brian McBride but his header lacked the pace to beat Pollitt on his right-hand side.
Diop then picked the ball up in midfield and speculatively shot from more than 30 yards out but it did not trouble Pollitt’s goal.
For the next half an hour it was all Wigan.
Gary Teale made another dangerous run and cut inside before shooting, only for the ball to deflect into the area, but Niemi and Rosenior’s lack of communication meant they both missed it and the ball ended up bouncing out for a corner.
On 20 minutes a brief Fulham counter attack, again started by Wayne Bridge, ended with Helguson lashing a first time volley well over the bar from Bridge’s cross.
Then at the other end Robert’s got onto Teale’s dangerous cross only to head just wide of Niemi’s near post.
McCulloch had two dangerous headers within two minutes as he escaped the attention of Liam Rosenior who continually got caught ball watching throughout the night.
Wigan were looking much more comfortable on the ball and it looked to the neutral that they were the home side, such was the space they were allowed to play in and Fulham’s lack of a killer pass in the final third was looking to prove costly.
Wigan then began to dominate possession. Fulham simply could not keep or win the ball despite Diop trying to muscle his team back into the contest.
Teale went on another run, purposefully looking to capitalize on Wigan’s dominance but his shot lacked direction before Henri Camara faired little better with a 30-yard strike that again missed the target.
Camara had another chance three minutes later but he snatched at his volley from Bridge’s attempted clearance and again missed the target by a mile.
And he wasted another chance shortly before half-time after Roberts had muscled his way down the right side of the penalty area before passing to Camara in open space but he simply could not direct his shot on target.
Despite being completely overwhelmed in the first half Fulham somehow kept the score at 0-0 before shocking everyone by coming up with a goal themselves just before half time.
Bridge’s pass on the left found Boa Morte running through the middle and his clever run through up the inside left channel opened up a bit of space for Malbranque. Boa Morte’s pass was pure perfection, right into Malbranque’s feet and his touch put him in front of goal before lashing his shot into the net from 10 yards out.
It was completely against the run of play, and despite taking the lead only a minute earlier, The Cottagers were booed off at half-time by their own supporters. It more or less told the story of the first half, the lead was certainly undeserved but the genius of Malbranque and Boa Morte is such that the rest of the team does not have to be playing well for them to still produce the goods.
Coleman must have had some harsh words at the interval as Fulham came flying out of the traps in the second half. In the first minute Helguson unleashed a volley from 25 yards that looked to be heading inside the near post but Mike Pollitt reacted well to palm it away.
Helguson then mis-hit a shot which found its way to McBride but his shot went hopelessly wide.
After that Wigan started to settle into their rhythm again and a spectacular cross which found its way to Camara but it was not to be his night as he headed well over again.
Bridge then got away with just a warning after a foul on Teale who was again causing Fulham problems down the right.
Whenever Fulham got possession Malbranque playing deep, surrendered possession time and time again.
The game started to turn a bit ugly as Wigan upped the pace with Fulham defending for their lives, Diop being booked for a wild challenge on Baines out on the left.
Wigan then broke down the right and Bullard unleashed a low 25-yard drive but it was straight at Niemi.
Teale and Bullard put in cross after cross into the box but no-one was there to win the headers for them.
After 72 minutes Coleman introduced Radzinski to try to kill the game off.
Fulham continued to scrap on the edge of their own area to keep the Wigan bombardment at bay and Boa Morte got booked for a reckless challenge
From the free-kick Wigan got the ball in the back of the net but it was disallowed because referee Rob Styles had not blown to continue the game.
Fulham continued to hang on as Wigan looked increasingly like they would get their just rewards.
After Radzinski had wasted possession Wigan surged forward and Roberts, receiving the ball 25 yards out, turned outside Knight but hit the ball over.
Fulham then broke and Boa Morte worked his way across the Wigan penalty area before finding Malbranque who thumped a thunderous half-volley that Pollitt struggled to deal with.
Radzinski then added his name into the referee’s book.
Straight away Leyton Baines took the ball down the left only for McBride to commit a dangerous challenge and also himself a yellow card. The free-kick again was headed over.
The Fulham defence again found itself in a mess, unable to clear the ball from their area but Camara wasted his chance with a shot lashed well over the bar.
The match got uglier as Wigan started to show frustration at their lack of reward and Chimbonda ended up getting booked.
A late Wigan surge saw Chimbonda fly past Bridge on the right and pass across goal only for Robert’s to miscue. The ball was not clear from danger though and McCulloch got onto the rebound but it ended up in the side-netting.
Fulham can count their lucky stars that the whistle went a few seconds later. They certainly stole the points, but man of the match Gary Teale had already stolen the show.