Brilliant Given keeps Fulham at bay

Fulham 0 Aston Villa 0: Experienced keeper likely to prove the signing of the summer and provide breathing space for new Villa manager McLeish
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The Independent Online

The new Aston Villa manager, Alex McLeish, needed this result more than his Fulham counterpart, Martin Jol, following his controversial switch from arch rivals Birmingham City this summer, and it showed as he walked across the Craven Cottage pitch acknowledging a standing ovation from the travelling Midlands support after the match.

There were protests outside Villa Park following his defection from St Andrews, but that now seems a mood quick to fade. It helps, of course, when you have already made the buy of the new season with the transfer window still far from closed. The player in question is goalkeeper Shay Given, plucked from overcrowded Manchester City's substitute-bench bargain bucket for what already seems a paltry £3.5 million.

The Republic of Ireland record appearance holder made three outstanding second-half saves to earn his side an opening-day point against a Fulham side already well into their stride. He is 35, has signed a five-year contract and with the Tottenham bound 40-year-old Brad Friedel leaving by the other door it looks a great piece of business by McLeish.

The former Newcastle favourite Given was much coveted by clubs such as Arsenal as he sat on the bench behind England's rising star Joe Hart, but it was McLeish and Villa who seized the initiative. "It wasn't easy to sign him; it was a protracted deal," McLeish explained. "We had to satisfy all three parties, but I was always confident we would sign him.

"His experience tells him when to go into the right position. The chances came point blank at him and he made crucial saves, but I was disappointed not have made more of our chances in the first half."

For McLeish, it was clear to see he saw this as a point gained.

Fulham finished eighth last season, a point and a place above Villa. They could finish close together again this season, but whether they will be so high up the table is likely to depend on how good the teams around them prove to be. This was the opening day of the season for most Premier League teams but it marked Fulham's seventh match following six ties in the Europa League, and they are off on their travels again this Thursday to face the emerging Ukrainian side Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk for the first leg of the play-off round.

It was, of course, a big day for the Fulham manager as well, as the first day of the season marked Jol's first game in the Premier League for almost four years after he was harshly sacked by Tottenham.

While McLeish was quite cautious in his approach, with Darren Bent a lone striker, the Dutch coach set up his side to attack. And it all seemed to be coming together after the break and a first half in which they had survived an impressive showing from Villa, with the young midfielder Fabian Delph dictating the midfield.

A less experienced or able keeper than Given might have cracked as Fulham came forward after the interval and a quick passing move involving Damien Duff and Andy Johnson presented Bobby Zamora with a 46th-minute chance. He flicked a shot with the outside ofhis right foot, which produced a stunning reflex save.

Fulham were straight back on the attack, with the Norwegian summer signing John Arne Riise supplying the ammunition this time and Zamora again getting on the end of the cross. The talented Zamora went close once more soon afterwards following a classy long pass from Danny Murphy but was again defied by Given, who blocked his shot from close range.

The match descended into a flurry of bookings and substitutions, and a draw was just about the right result, though Villa were probably happier to leave with a point. Jol, who said he was excited to be back, awarded himself a mark of six and a half out of 10 for his Premier League return, adding: "A 0-0 draw at home can't be considered a good result."

Jol is still shopping for a striker, and if he can land a player in Given's class, he and Fulham will have little to worry about.

Fulham (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Hughes, Hangeland, Senderos, Riise; Dempsey, Murphy, Etuhu, Duff; Zamora (Dembele, 73 ), Johnson.

Aston Villa (4-2-3-1): Given; Young, Dunne, Collins, Warnock; Delph, Petrov (Clark, 90); Agbonlahor, N'Zogbia (Albrighton, 67), Heskey; Bent.

Referee Lee Mason.

Man of the match Shay Given.

Match rating 6/10.

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