Fulham dream of a miracle
David Ashdown at The Independent

Fulham 2 Birmingham City 0

Joy unconfined down by the Thames. An almost skittish Roy Hodgson, belying his image as an elder statesman of the game, elatedly kicked out at a balloon as some of his players collapsed in a heap of exhaustion and delight. Anyone would think they had preserved their Premier League status. Well, they have not yet, but after this dismissal of a desperately disappointing Birmingham, it is now theirs to lose after a third win in four games and their first back-to-back Premier League victories since September 2006 propelled them into the safety zone.

Win, at FA Cup finalists Portsmouth next Sunday, and they are safe. Anything but and they will still be sweating, along with Birmingham, whose destiny is no longer under their control. "After that Liverpool game [the only blot on Fulham's recent record, when they lost 2-0], I did think it would take some kind of miracle to get this chance." Hodgson conceded. "Now, I feel relieved and I feel satisfaction with the team's performance, with their mental courage and ability to stand up and be counted when we really needed to do that."

Hodgson has never experienced relegation, and his captain Brian McBride ensured that his manager's CV could well remain free of that blot. The American striker's headed goal was due reward for Fulham's second-half endeavours, accompanied by the exhortations of a frenzied crowd. A late second from substitute Erik Nevland was a welcome afterthought. However, the Fulham manager warned: "There was euphoria at the end, and, I'm very happy, but it isn't finished yet. This could still turn into despair."

Which is what the visiting faithful will be feeling. Before the game, the Fulham manager had promised it would be "a bloody battle". In fact, it was bloodless. At the end, the Birmingham manager Alex McLeish bid his players to applaud the travelling supporters.

That was about all they did for them on an afternoon when they failed to trouble Fulham goalkeeper Kasey Keller. At least the Blues are at home, against Blackburn, in their final game. Away from St Andrew's, they have amassed only nine points out of a possible 57. In fact, McLeish can be thankful that defeat here did not consign his men to relegation. "We have a lifeline next week," said the Birmingham manager.

He added: "At half-time, I thought 'fine'. We'd had a couple of good moments that we hadn't capitalised on. But then we were undone with a set-piece." It was true that in that first period, for all Fulham's possession, City, on the break, appeared marginally morelikely to force a breakthrough.

James McFadden and Mikael Forssell combined to unnerve the Cottagers' back line. It needed a timely clearance by Aaron Hughes off the foot of Forssell as he prepared to shoot to spare Fulham. Earlier, McBride had headed against the bar, but was adjudged offside, and a well-worked free-kick from Jimmy Bullard found Simon Davies whose effort was superbly saved by Maik Taylor.

An injured Liam Ridgewell was replaced by the former Fulham man, Franck Queudrue at the break. And that was a significant moment. Who can say whether it disrupted City's defensive solidity, but five minutes into the second half, McBride broke free of the pack to head Bullard's tantalising free-kick wide of Taylor.

Kamara could have placed matters entirely in Fulham's keeping, when he twisted and turned through the visitors' rearguard, but finished with a shot grotesquely high over the bar.

McLeish introduced Mauro Zarate, and later would send on Cameron Jerome for Forssell. But the Fulham defence was rarely stretched. Indeed Hodgson's men looked the likelier to add to their lead and Clint Dempsey headed over.

With three minutes remaining, Nevland capitalised on an error by Queudrue and drove past Taylor. Davies and substitute David Healy could have embarrassed City further.

The Fulham players emerged afterwards for a kind of lap of honour. Possibly premature, but when you think that they were five points adrift, with four games remaining, and last week before that remarkable comeback at Manchester City, they appeared doomed, they could be allowed that indulgence, couldn't they?

The drop zone
A win for Bolton (36 points and -18 goal difference) over Sunderland yesterday means the Trotters are safe barring a mathematical miracle next Sunday.

Relegation now comes down to perming two from three: Fulham (33pts and -23), Reading (33pts and -29) and Birmingham (32pts and -19).

Reading go to Derby next Sunday, Fulham travel to Portsmouth and Birmingham host Blackburn. Bolton travel to Chelsea but only a 12-goal swing with Reading cansend them down.