Derby County 2 Fulham 2: Rams down, Fulham on brink

Derby finally drop but Villa's equaliser takes Hodgson's men perilously close to same fate
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The Independent Online

Four goals shared and an open game with several chances at both ends. There is a lot to look forward to when these two teams meet again next season. The only difference is if that happens, the fixture will come with a different tag, filed under Championship rather than Premier League football.

That is because a point here for the hosts and Birmingham's win elsewhere condemned Derby to the second tier of English football before April has even come around. The joys of spring will not be felt around Pride Park this year. They will be pretty elusive in south-west London, too.

For Fulham to have given themselves a half-decent chance of not following the Rams down, they needed to win. Having taken the lead with 12 minutes left, and given themselves hope of a first away win since September 2006, the visitors duly conceded an equaliser. The gap between Fulham and safety is six points, which is surely too much to bridge with six games to go.

Naturally Roy Hodgson, Fulham's manager, was not throwing in the towel quite yet. "Every week I hear it's a must-win game," he said, although this one really did fit that category. He did at least concede the folly that let Emanuel Villa equalise 60 seconds after Hameur Bouazza's deflected strike. "It was a cardinal sin to let that goal in after we took the lead, but football is an emotional game. We switched off and we were back to parity," he said.

Before the noose finally tightened around Derby's neck, they at least showed some life, although as it turned out they were simply the last twitches of a hopeless cause and of a team already derided by their own manager, Paul Jewell, as not good enough for the Premier League. It has been obvious all season, and 11 points from 32 games is a sorry statistic. "Relegation has been inevitable for some time," he said.

"Everything is geared to next season now but we can't write off this season. We've got to learn from our mistakes." There have been too many to mention.

With 10 minutes gone, the hosts took the lead. On the edge of the Fulham area, Robbie Savage hooked a loose ball that fell to Dean Leacock. So far, so unpromising. But then the centre-half made two yards of space for his shot which deflected off Villa. It was Derby's first home League goal since the end of January.

It was a blow to Fulham, who have not won on their travels for so long, although this fixture had represented their best opportunity to end that streak before the close of the season.

They were struggling once more before a familiar hole opened up in Derby's defence. After 24 minutes, Simon Davies' cross was met by the head of Diomansy Kamara, unmarked between the Rams' two centre-halves.

With both teams knowing a point was almost irrelevant, the game promised more goals that eventually arrived. With 12 minutes remaining Fulham took the lead as Bouazza's volley was deflected in off Leacock.

They had barely finished celebrating when, 60 seconds later, matters were level. Mile Sterjovski crossed from the right and Villa had his second of the afternoon with a header, a goal rather more intentional than his first. It may prove the costliest Fulham concede all season.

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