Rene Muelensteen is apparently the tonic that Fulham needed. After a narrow defeat against Tottenham Hotspur in his first game in charge, the new manager masterminded an emphatic win against Aston Villa at Craven Cottage, grabbing a vital three points and, perhaps more importantly, proving that his team's actually capable of competing at the top level.
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Fulham have barely looked like they were playing the same sport as most of their opponents this season, but the first half marked a dramatic turnaround. The visitors were coming off an impressive win against St. Mary's and were also boosted by the return of Christian Benteke -- they were expected to cause Maarten Stekelenburg problems and duly did so. But nobody was anticipating the Cottagers to reply so vigourously.
The first twenty minutes saw a thrilling back-and-forth match. Dimitar Berbatov's deft header looked destined for the top corner before Brad Guzan clawed the ball from off the line, and at the other end of the pitch, Gabriel Agbonlahor seized upon a Sascha Riether error and fired in a cross for Benteke only for the big Belgium to send his effort just wide. Minutes later, Benteke worked space in the box but smashed straight at Stekelenburg.
The combination of Ashkan Dejagah and Alexander Kacaniklic should have handed Fulham the lead 15 minutes in when Dejagah went though on goal, but a fine challenge by Ciaran Clark got the ball half-clear, and although Kacaniklic seized upon the rebound and steered a shot goalwards, Nathan Baker was on hand to clear off the line.
But where Dejagah and Kacaniklic failed, Steve Sidwell rather implausibly succeeded. Brilliant flicked finishes aren't normally part of the combative midfielder's repertoire, but that's exactly what he produced when he snuck onto the end of a free kick and, under pressure from Leandro Bacuna and facing an impossibly acute angle, scooped the ball over Guzan and just inside the far post.
Bacuna's night got worse shortly thereafter. Villa's reply to going behind was to pour on the pressure, but the hosts were more than happy to play on the counterattack, and a brilliant volleyed pass by Berbatov set Kacaniklic clean through. Bacuna did magnificently to make up the gap, but when Kacaniklic went down in the box, Mike Dean immediately pointed to the spot.
It was a dubious penalty call -- there was contact, but it's not entirely clear who initiated it -- but the moral high ground didn't help the visitors out very much, because Berbatov waited for Guzan to commit himself before rolling a shot into the opposite corner.
At 1-0, Villa had their work cut out. Down by two against this rejuvenated Fulham side, a comeback looked virtually impossible. They had to push forward but in doing so opened themselves up, and Fulham looked more than capable of exploiting the resultant gaps. John Arne Riise hit the base post from a Giorgos Karagounis cross after a strange error from Guzan and a second mistake by the American very nearly presented Berbatov with a second goal after failing to catch a Dejagah shot.
A third goal felt almost inevitable, and although it never arrived, that didn't matter too much. Villa couldn't make anything out of the half-chances that fell their way in the second half (perhaps thanks to Dean, who denied Agbonalhor a penalty after the striker was hacked down by Aaron Hughes), and with a two-goal cushion the Cottagers were able to see out the rest of the match comfortably enough, with Stekelenburg not called into serious action until injury time.
Fulham starting lineup (4-3-3): Maarten Stekelenburg; John Arne Riise, Aaron Hughes, Philippe Senderos, Sascha Riether; Giorgos Karagounis (Pajtim Kasami 73'), Steve Sidwell, Scott Parker; Alexander Kacaniklic (Damien Duff 77'), Dimitar Berbatov, Ashkan Dejagah.
Goals: Sidwell 21', Berbatov 30' (p).
Aston Villa starting lineup (4-3-3): Brad Guzan; Nathan Baker, Ciaran Clark, Chris Herd (Matthew Lowton 81'), Leandro Bacuna; Ashley Westwood, Karim El Ahmadi (Aleksandar Tonev 45'), Fabian Delph; Gabriel Agbonlahor, Christian Benteke, Andreas Weimann (Marc Albrighton 81').