Fulham looks to have turned a corner in recent weeks, with a 2-1 win 2-1 win over Aston Villa yesterday. The day was a great celebration, not only of the win, but the manner in which Fulham played.
Hodgson started with a 4-5-1 formation with recent acquisition Erik Nevland up top and American Clint Dempsey returning to the outside midfield where he plays much better. Throughout the match, Fulham was putting pressure on the Villa defense, with long stretches of play in an around the Villa penalty box and some good chances for the Cottagers. But some bad luck kept the score even at halftime.
Second half play, though, got a little sloppy at times, culminating in an own goal by Aaron Hughes the 68th minute. Off a corner kick, the deflected off Hughes knee and into the net between goalkeeper Antii Niemi and Defedner Paul Konchesky sitting on the post. That bit of bad luck did not last long. The next minute saw the return of American striker and team captain Brian McBride from an knee injury. McBride's did not have much of a physical presence, although he did make a couple of attempts. But the pyschological presence of McBride must have brought the Cottagers some luck. Three minutes later, Simon Davies scored the equalizer with a nifty little flick of Jimmy Bullard cross that zipped into the goal behind Villa's keeper. I would have to check the records, but I believe that is teh first time this season where falling behind didn't spell doom for Fulham.
About five minutes later, Hodgson replaced the tired Clint Dempsey with Senegalese international Diomansy Kamara, fresh from the Africa Cup of Nations, and the change proved to be fortuitous. Six minutes after entering the match, Kamara was slicing across the center about 8 yeards from the top of the Villa penalty box when he was brought down by Villa Curtis Davies. Bullard knuckled the free kick from 25 yards out into the left corner of the goal past a diving Carson for the game winner. The shot was wickedly perfect and gave Fulham the full three points.
Bullard is proving to be the catalyst in the midfield. He seemed to be everywhere at once and that kind of energy left him a little winded in the last 15 minutes or so, but he did well. The return of McBride is good news as well, although he may be a week or two from full match fitness, to see him come in as a substitute was heartening to see. Similarly, it was good to see Dempsey back in the midfield. The long time spent as an attacker may have actually sapped his fitness level a little, but he proved tenacious in the midfield.
Some changes in the back line also seemed to work. Adding Brede Hangeland to the middle was a good move as Villa fielded John Carew, a very big, very strong striker. While it was personally disappointing to see Carlos Bocanegra sitting on the bench, Hangeland proved more than capable. I am still disappointed in Aaron Hughes. The own goal was a bit of bad luck and that is not the source of my disappointment. Hughes has had some pretty sloppy play of late and that is not the kind of performance Fulham can afford. Poor clearances, mistakes in marking, leaving players unchallenged at time will only lead to disappointment and potentially a loss of points. While Boca has not played much better, Dejan Stefanovich has proved solid in the middle and may work well with Hangeland. With 13 defenders to choose from, Hodgson can mix and match, but the experimentation needs to be kept to a minium.
While the Cottagers have a number of tough matches left, namely against Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool, their play yesterday showed they can compete well. Next up is Middlesbrough who is sitting 13th with just seven more points that Fulham. Despite the win, Fulham remain 19th on the league table as Sunderland won over the weekend while Birmigham salvaged a point against Derby County and Reading dropped against Bolton. But escape from the drop zone looks imminent.