Aston Villa fans look set to endure nervy afternoons like this right to the end of the season after a home draw with Fulham that has to count as a missed opportunity in their effort to clamber clear of relegation trouble. Villa went into the match knowing victory would take them five points clear of third-bottom Wigan Athletic, but despite taking the lead through Charles N'Zogbia, they had to settle for a point thanks to Fabian Delph's own goal.
It was a goal that set an unwanted club record of 60 conceded in a Premier League campaign and was an undoubted setback to Villa's survival hopes. Wigan have two games in hand and with Villa's next fixture at Manchester United on Monday week, the pressure could be right back on them by the time they host Sunderland on Monday 29 April.
Yet the home manager, Paul Lambert, preferred to focus on the positives. "Today we played really well and got a draw, and that point could be absolutely massive," he said, pointing to the "right cluster" of clubs that have been sucked into the relegation fight in recent weeks, including Stoke, now level on 34 points with Villa. "I am not too disappointed at all with the performance," Lambert added. "It wasn't that long ago that Fulham went to White Hart Lane and turned over a top side in Tottenham."
Villa had entered this game on a run of three wins from their last four league outings yet they took time to find their stride against an assured-looking Fulham side, for whom the forward pair of Dimitar Berbatov and Bryan Ruiz stood out. The Londoners' measured approach contrasted with the high-energy football of Villa's youngsters typified by Andreas Weimann, who set up the first clear opening midway through the half, when crossing to Christian Benteke who steered the ball over from six yards.
Villa were missing the injured Gabriel Agbonlahor but his replacement, N'Zogbia, made an impact. On the half-hour he met Benteke's cross with a low drive that Mark Schwarzer palmed on to the near post. The Frenchman then flashed in a rising shot that Schwarzer tipped over.
According to Martin Jol, the Fulham manager, the visitors were "hot and cold" yet when they were hot, they found holes in Villa's defence. Berbatov had three chances, the best of them coming early in the second half when Ruiz threaded the ball through and Berbatov stepped inside Ashley Westwood but, with only Brad Guzan to beat, rolled the ball against the far post.
Villa responded by making the breakthrough at the other end as Brede Hangeland's weak clearance fell to N'Zogbia on the right of the penalty box. He stopped the ball with his right foot then with his left sent it curling inside the far corner.
A crucial victory looked within Villa's grasp but Delph's own goal 11 minutes later decided otherwise. Ruiz swung in a corner and the midfielder's unwitting back-header at the near post diverted the ball over Guzan. "He made an honest mistake," said Lambert.
The lively Delph and Benteke both spurned chances to win it for Villa, while Fulham substitute Mladen Petric failed to convert Ruiz's ball into the six-yard box.
The point Fulham gained secures top-flight football for next season – "I am a happy customer we have 40 points," said Jol, who hopes Villa survive too. "Hopefully for them with their philosophy, with all these youngsters, they will stay up," he said. "I think the future is theirs." But where that future will be remains to be seen.