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Fulham for Europe - S.Times

last updated Sunday 13th January 2002, 8:53 AM
Fulham's Craven Cottage is a homely ground in a Nationwide way, yet its team has a Premiership look to it. Now in the top 10, European football is a realistic aspiration for the Londoners. No matter who the opposition are, Fulham pass the ball confidently and create chances. Steed Malbranque is dangerous when he runs at defences and neat footballers such as Steve Finnan and John Collins ensure there is order to Fulham’s game.

There were other plus signs yesterday; striker Steve Marlet was a constant threat and then there was Louis Saha.

Manager Jean Tigana opted to start with Saha on the bench, but turned to his compatriot when Middlesbrough went a goal up early in the first half. It wasn’t simply that the visitors scored but that Fulham had started without any spark. Once Saha came on in the 35th minute, the game changed.

Until then, Boro had been comfortable. Indeed, they went in front eight minutes into the match. Rufus Brevett was harshly judged to have pushed over Hamilton Ricard on the right. As Carlos Marinelli lined up to take the free kick, Gareth Southgate and Gianluca Festa made late runs into the Fulham penalty area.

Distracted by the centre-backs, Fulham’s defenders paid little heed to left-back Colin Cooper creeping in at the far post. Sylvain Legwinski was particularly negligent and when Marinelli swung his free kick to the back post, Cooper scored with a straightforward header.

But Boro are no worldbeaters and the difficulty for them is that they know it. Once in front, they sank spiritually, as if they didn’t believe that they were good enough to be there. The midfielders retreated towards their own goal, possession was cheaply surrendered and the game flowed relentlessly towards their goal.

Their defence has been excellent this season but Ugo Ehiogu is on the injured list and the Frenchman Franck Queudrue was suspended. Southgate was excellent again but there was simply too much for him to do. Middlesbrough might have got away with it were it not for Saha. The equaliser came five minutes after his arrival. Cooper climbed above Malbranque to head clear but was harshly penalised for pushing the Frenchman.

It was as questionable a call as the one that preceded Boro’s goal and again it changed the course of the game. Malbranque floated the free kick into the six-yard area and Robbie Stockdale was caught between watching the ball and Saha, who stole a couple of yards and powered his header into the net.

That score lifted Fulham’s spirits and they flew in a swarm towards the Boro goal. Like the two earlier goals, the winner on the stroke of half-time came wrapped in controversy. Saha cut in from the left and played the ball through for Marlet. Festa got his right foot to the ball but it ricocheted off him and Marlet reacted quickest of all to score. But he did seem to start from a position that looked suspiciously close to offside.

The flag stayed down and Marlet did well to guide the ball under Mark Crossley for the goal. Boro’s players protested and Paul Ince’s insistence that the goal should not have counted earned him a caution.

Count it did and Boro will hope that by the end of the season, it will not matter. There are no certainties here for Middlesbrough are now deep in relegation country. Manager Steve McClaren has been keen to buy Dwight Yorke and although Manchester United are prepared to sell, Middlesbrough can no longer spend like they once did. But club chairman Steve Gibson might find the cost of relegation is far greater than the £7m fee that United want for Yorke.

Boro certainly need something different and they played far more positively in the second period when their more attacking approach revealed the spirit within the style. But it didn’t lead to many chances and Fulham, it was, who benefited more from the opening up of the match.

Saha continued to cause danger with his runs, Malbranque and John Collins had the touch of creativity that Boro lacked and if there was to be another goal, Fulham were the likely scorers. Southgate and Festa threw bodies in the line of fire and kept their team in the match. Admirable, but not enough.

Fulham:
Van der Sar, Finnan, Melville, Goma, Brevett, Legwinski (Saha 35min), Malbranque, Davis, Collins, Hayles (Knight 72min), Marlet

Middlesbrough:
Crossley, Stockdale, Festa, Southgate, Cooper, Marinelli (Nemeth 77min), Mustoe, Ince, Greening (Windass 66min), Ricard (Stamp 50min), Whelan

Scorers:
Fulham: Saha 40, Marlet 45
Middlesbrough: Cooper 8

Referee: M Dean Attendance: 18,975
Source Sunday Times by David Walsh
Since 1998
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