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Fulham 2-0 Aston Villa Prem 15 1314 The Guardian

last updated Monday 09th December 2013, 2:13 PM

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Dominic Fifield at The Guardian

Fulham (2) 2 Aston Villa (0) 0

Fulham have unleashed their secret weapon upon those embroiled in the relegation struggle but, rather than a new Dutch manager with fresh ideas and a lofty status as a coach, theirs is a temperamental Bulgarian whose reputation would normally precede him.

Dimitar Berbatov had hardly stirred up to now this season, his mood reflecting a player apparently with little appetite for a scrap near the foot after a career largely spent competing for honours at the other end of the table.

His agent had been quoted last week suggesting the time was close for him to jump ship, talk of imminent divorce rather unsettling in the troubled context of this season. Yet if Rene Meulensteen has achieved anything in his first week as manager, he has coaxed form and even drive from the man upon whom his team must rely.

A penny for Martin Jol's thoughts as news of the masterclass to which Berbatov subjected Aston Villa reached the departed Dutchman. The former manager had hoped his team would benefit regularly from this kind of display, with Berbatov creative, constantly involved and, as a result, inspirational in a game the hosts simply had to win.

"He makes a difference, absolutely," said Meulensteen, who had spoken to his player in the wake of Emil Danchev's comments on Wednesday. "You saw what he's capable of out there. Berbatov's not a stranger. We had a good chat and we know what games we've got coming up to January, and he's committed to Fulham."

That was not a reflection of an inevitable mid-season departure, but more acceptance that everything has to be geared towards the short term.

Berbatov's influence had been felt most obviously at the second goal, sparked by a flick with the outside of his boot, skill summoned on the pirouette just inside the centre-circle, from Giorgos Karagounis's punt which liberated Alexander Kacaniklic. The Swede eventually tumbled despite appearing to back into Leandro Bacuna, with Berbatov's penalty patted home at walking pace.

That was only a second league goal of term, though the strut of old - born of arrogance rather than laziness - was evident every time he was in possession and confronting a youthful Villa back-line. Brad Guzan had done wonderfully well to turn aside an early header at a corner, Berbatov having pulled away at the far post.

The American reacted just as smartly to block another attempt with the outside of his right foot after the forward had glided round the clutter and on to Steve Sidwell's lay-off. None of the division's other stragglers boast a player of his type or, indeed, quality. While he was becalmed he had felt like a passenger. Revived and committed, he might single-handedly thrust Fulham out of trouble.

Inevitably, he had also been involved in the hosts' opener with a slick exchange of passes with Ashkan Dejagah, the Iranian eventually slipping a pass between Bacuna and the goalkeeper upon which Steve Sidwell pounced.

The former Villa midfielder wrapped his left foot around the loose ball at full stretch to clip it into the far corner. That exorcised the nerves born of those six successive league defeats and had Meulensteen punching the air on the bench. This was a key contest after that deflating run of defeats, with daunting games against Everton and Manchester City to follow before Christmas.

His side will approach those occasions with more heart having hauled themselves level with the cut-off. Theirs had been a seasoned lineup here, at an average 31 years and 25 days with a combined 99 years in their midfield trio, and that experience told against young opponents.

Villa had flummoxed Southampton in midweek on the counter yet, once behind, their limitations were exposed this time around. Christian Benteke had flashed one header wide from Gabriel Agbonlahor's centre, the Belgian drawing a save from Maarten Stekelenburg moments later and another smart reaction in stoppage time, but their play was laced with anxiety from the moment they fell behind.

Instead, they cursed Mike Dean's decision to award Fulham their penalty and deny Agbonlahor one of his own despite Aaron Hughes' touch as he lunged to intercept. "I am disappointed at some of the decisions, and I've just spoken to Mike," said Paul Lambert. "He has his views on it, we have ours." Yet he had no complaints about the loss.

John Arne Riise had nodded against a post before the end, a swagger returning to the home side's play. Meulensteen appears to have had an immediate impact. Those near the cut-off should beware: Fulham, like Crystal Palace, are reviving under new management and Berbatov is purring again.

Man of the match Dimitar Berbatov (Fulham)

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