If this game was to prove anything about Aston Villa, it was meant to show that they were not arch- exponents of a long-ball game, nor that their strike force had dried up just when Martin O'Neill needed it most. On Wednesday, Arsène Wenger got under O'Neill's skin by suggesting in the wake of the goalless draw with Arsenal that Villa were a Route One side, a comment that drew a relatively fierce reaction from the Villa manager.
Here at Craven Cottage, calmed by a fairly straightforward victory which proved that his strikers were not in danger of redefining that particular word, he admitted he had probably overreacted in midweek.
Yet the Northern Irishman still felt moved to defend his side's reputation, saying: "The players can play, no doubt at all, and we've got centre-backs as confident as any in the Premiership with the ball at their feet. Perhaps Arsène Wenger's comment was a bit overblown. I got irked in the week, but if I had thought about it I would have let it go."
Part of O'Neill's frustration also stemmed from the fact that his side, just when they were positioned so well for the final Champions' League place, had stuttered in the League since Christmas. Four games had come and gone, two of them defeats, without his players scoring, even if reaching the Carling Cup final has acted as a soothing balm. But it is in the League where O'Neill wants to show he can compete with the biggest teams, and that goalscoring drought had seen his side slip from fourth place.
After beating Stoke by one goal on 19 December, O'Neill could not have imagined he would have to wait seven hours and change – 429 minutes, to be precise – for another one in the League. The wait ended here when two of the precious blighters turned up in short order, and now Villa sit only two points behind Tottenham, who are in fourth place.
Gabriel Agbonlahor got them both, his ninth and 10th of the campaign. The first was simple, as Stiliyan Petrov crossed to the near post, where Agbonlahor outjumped Chris Smalling to head home from eight yards.
Four minutes later, Villa had a second and a decisive lead. Carlos Cuellar passed to Agbonlahor, whose marker, Brede Hangeland, slipped just at the wrong moment, leaving Villa's top scorer to turn and curl his shot beyond Mark Schwarzer's right hand.
Roy Hodgson, Fulham's manager, was critical of his defenders, saying: "Make a mistake for the first goal then compound it a few minutes later leaves you a lot to do." Too much to do, as it turned out, despite Fulham pressing desperately to get back in the game. David Elm, a substitute, had the ball in the net but was given offside in the 72nd minute, which Hodgson rued, and after that Brad Friedel was relatively untroubled, protected by the imposing defensive duo of Richard Dunne and James Collins.
Sir Alex Ferguson, in town for his side's game at Arsenal today, took the chance to watch Villa, his opponents in the Carling Cup final at the end of February, and also to look at his latest purchase, Smalling, whom he bought for Manchester United this week but who will continue to play for Fulham this season.
The central defender, on his third League start, was caught out for the first goal, even if he was covering for Hangeland. But he showed the attributes of calmness in possession and a willingness to play simple, neat passes that caught not only Ferguson's attention in the first place but Wenger's too this month.
This was Fulham's fifth consecutive League defeat, although Hodgson was not about to panic given the level of possession his side had enjoyed here. For O'Neill, having proved a couple of footballing points and earned three, the panic is over too, for the time being.
Referee: Lee Mason
Man of the match: Agbonlahor
Match rating: 6/10Reuse content