Birmingham City 1 Fulham 1: Hodgson hot under collar as Fulham huff and puff away

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The Independent Football

An inability to hold a lead or to win away from home are not ideal traits in a team struggling for Premier League survival. Fulham played true to that form yesterday as Carlos Bocanegra's early goal was cancelled out by Sebastian Larsson's second-half strike to leave the Londoners stuck in the bottom three.

Watching from the stands was Roy Hodgson, who takes over as Fulham manager today and will dwell long on their frailties. They have not won an away game in 27 matches since September 2006. This was the eighth match this season in which they have taken the lead but not won.

Hodgson looked nervous before kick-off, fidgeting with his collar and tie as if trying to get more air. On this evidence, it will be some time before he breathes easily. His first game is against Chelsea on New Year's Day. Birmingham's next is at Manchester United. The largesse of multimillionaire owners in January could help a little.

Birmingham's co-owner, David Sullivan, wrote in his programme notes that his "enthusiasm for the club is renewed" now a takeover by the Hong Kong businessman Carson Yeung has fallen through. That enthusiasm would have taken a battering in the first half; Birmingham were poor and Fulham should have been home and dry. But by the end there were signs that the Blues have as good a chance as any other side of staying up.

Birmingham's manager, Alex McLeish, was honest about his club's limited ambitions when he said: "That's eight points from our last six games now. If we can maintain that average we'll be all right."

Ray Lewington, in his last game as Fulham's stand-in manager before joining Hodgson's staff, said: "In the first half we played well and created opportunities. We needed a second goal, though, and I thought we deserved it. But we knew they'd come out stronger in the second half and they did."

By elite standards, these are two sides who must rely on hard work, organisation and luck. The Blues were blessed with some of the latter inside 20 seconds when David Healy's shot from the edge of the area flew just wide. But it exposed a worrying flat-footedness in defence, and Fulham went ahead in the eighth minute after Hameur Bouazza's strong run down the left earned a corner which was taken by Simon Davies and nodded home at the near post, far too easily, by Bocanegra.

Birmingham should perhaps have been ahead already, but Gary McSheffrey's run ended with a wild shot; the defensive attention of Paul Konchesky was not a great excuse.

Fulham's defence looked much more assured then when shipping five against Tottenham in midweek. Dejan Stefanovic was solid at the back, steering dangerous crosses clear and cutting breaks off early. Three more times in the first half Birmingham shot over Rahdi Jaidi, Cameron Jerome and McSheffrey took turns and that was in part because they were being harried so persistently.

The equaliser was created as Fabrice Muamba's diagonal pass was left to Larsson, who was skipping down the middle and took the ball in his stride. His shot took the smallest deflection as it flew beyond a stumbling Antti Niemi, whose atypical fumbling hardly helpedhis cause.

Niemi made a fine double save to prevent a winner before Fulham's chances disappeared with Bouazza's 79th-minute dismissal for a second booking.

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