When Fulham signed Dimitar Berbatov on the final day of the summer transfer window, some fans must have thought that the languid Bulgarian represented a poor replacement for Clint Dempsey, who is two years younger and a lot more dynamic. In the long term they may be proved right, but yesterday it looked a more than fair exchange.
Not only did Berbatov score twice on his home debut, with a superb curling effort and a clinical penalty, but he was also spotted winning challenges in midfield, executing a sliding challenge to dispossess an opponent, and heading away a corner-kick.
"He was at the back, he was in midfield, he was up front, he scored a good goal," Martin Jol, the Fulham manager, said. "I think he did more than he ever did in his life before. Dimitar wanted to give us this result. If he's fit, he will hopefully do what Clint Dempsey did for us."
It helped that West Bromwich Albion contributed to their own downfall. They were defending an unbeaten record and had an outside chance of finishing the match as Premier League leaders if they had won, but they played most of this game with 10 men after the dismissal of Peter Odemwingie for a kick at Sascha Riether.
They had begun confidently. James Morrison fired in an early range-finder that Mark Schwarzer was forced to flick over the bar, while Shane Long was a constant irritant to the home defence.
Albion's own rearguard had an easy time as Fulham's crosses drifted harmlessly across goal with neither Berbatov nor Hugo Rodallega able to anticipate them.
But as Berbatov warmed up and his passes found their targets, the defenders began to have more to think about. Billy Jones, an attack-minded right-back, was suddenly finding Alexander Kacaniklic a handful and a firm tackle by Jonas Olsson on Rodallega spared his blushes after he had allowed the Swedish winger to cross.
But there was no reprieve after 32 minutes when Kacaniklic turned Jones inside out down the left before passing to Berbatov, 15 yards out. The Bulgarian took a touch, looked up and swerved the ball round Ben Foster. Marc-Antoine Fortuné gave Jones a consoling pat, which took less effort than helping him out with Kacaniklic.
It was only the second goal West Brom had conceded this season, and things rapidly went downhill for the visitors with the departure of Odemwingie after 38 minutes. Dispossessed by Riether, he flicked out a boot at the right- back, and when that barely made contact, he kicked out viciously, with the ball nowhere.
"We're all human, we all have emotions," the West Brom manager Steve Clarke said. "He felt it was a free-kick to us and the red mist came down. It certainly didn't help but we gave Fulham too much space."
Perhaps the sensible thing at that stage would have been to see out the half and re-group. Jones, though, seemed to have other ideas. He launched a swashbuckling run into the Fulham penalty area, but it ended with the ball running harmlessly through to Schwarzer, and it may be that the long sprint back to his position had tired him out – because he got nowhere near the ball as he attempted to dispossess Kacaniklic in the penalty area in the 45th minute. It was the clearest of penalties and Berbatov planted the ball calmly past Foster.
West Brom tried to get back into the game, and substitutes Romelu Lukaku and Chris Brunt both forced saves from Schwarzer, but Fulham were making the most of the extra space. Damien Duff and Steve Sidwell both had shots saved by Foster, one of which was deflected off Berbatov, who would surely have claimed a hat-trick if it had gone in. Eventually Fulham scored a third, Sidwell blasting home the rebound after Rodallega's header had hit the woodwork.
Fulham (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Reither, Hughes, Hangeland, Riise; Duff (Smith, 90), Sidwell, Baird, Kakaniklic (Kasami, 84); Berbatov, Rodalegga.
West Bromwich Albion (4-2-3-1): Foster; Jones, McAuley, Olsson, Ridgewell; Mulumbu, Yacob (Rosenberg, 76); Odemwingie, Morrison, Fortune (Lukaku, h-t); Long (Brunt, h-t).
Referee: Roger East.
Man of the match: Berbatov (Fulham)
Match rating: 6/10
Half-time: 2-0 Att: 25,691Reuse content