Eager Fowler is let down by prosaic Leeds

Fulham 0 Leeds United 0
Click to follow
The Independent Football

It was for dog-day afternoons like these, when his young team seem to have treacle in their veins and a fog in their minds, that David O'Leary bought Robbie Fowler. Leeds were already hard to beat, O'Leary's work ethic and preference for scrappers has seen to that. But while one defeat in 14 Premiership matches may be championship form, seven draws is not. Thus the £11m investment in Fowler whose brief is to turn one point into three when alternative inspiration is lacking.

This Fowler was unable to do yesterday, and it would have been unjust if he had given Fulham's manifest superiority. But he showed enough to suggest that, as often as not, he will fulfil his assignment.

Though starved of opportunity by Leeds's prosaic midfield he still managed to produce as many shots as anyone and, three minutes from time, nearly stole the match. Reacting first after Rio Ferdinand headed back Ian Harte's corner Fowler saw his near-post flick snag under the big left boot of Edwin van der Sar.

"Those sort of half-chances are what I have bought Robbie for," said O'Leary. "He is an excellent finisher and will be an excellent buy if we get him right. I think we can get the best out of him – and he'll make us better.

"We didn't have many good performances today, but I was delighted with him especially as he has only been with us two days. He needs a run of games, 10-12 of them, but his work-rate and movement off the ball was excellent. There were some times when I thought we could have played him in, but didn't give him the ball."

This was hardly surprising with David Batty and Seth Johnson in central midfield. With Stephen McPhail a long-term injury absentee the Leeds manager may need to invest again if he is to get the best of Fowler.

Most chairman will tell you that managers always claim they are "just two players short" and O'Leary's other vacancy was on the right flank. A hamstring injury has deprived Leeds of Lee Bowyer's energetic running and timely finishing, and the subsequent void underlines how much they need the on-going court case to go Bowyer's way. With Eirik Bakke also injured yesterday's solution was a re-deployment of Alan Smith, but it was not a success. The switch enabled him to indulge his spite in the tackle – he was booked for a crude challenge on Steed Malbranque – but not his goalpoaching. This was only seen once, when he shot too close to Van der Sar after Mark Viduka pulled the ball back.

Since Olivier Dacourt was left on the bench the selection may have been motivated by a desire to reassure Smith he was still in O'Leary's plans. Thus Robbie Keane became the odd man out, spending a cold afternoon on the bench. Fowler, fresh from his Anfield isolation, would have sympathised.

The point leaves Leeds in third, four behind Liverpool who have a game in hand. Just as pertinently for O'Leary they are four ahead of Manchester United. "Don't listen to Fergie. They are not out of it," he said. "We were 13th last January, but look what happened when we went on a run."

Fulham are one place better than that, but do not expect to emulate Leeds' late run into Europe. Though Jean Tigana has spent £30m he has gone for evolution rather than revolution and fielded seven of his First Division stalwarts. They passed the ball well and created the better chances, but failed to reap the rewards their approach play deserved. Like Arsenal they over-elaborate, a damaging fault against Leeds who get men back so quickly.

"They are the tightest defence in the Premiership and we needed better balls around the goal," said the Fulham manager. "I am happy with the way we played, but not with only one point. The team is progressing and I am very confident for the future but we need more."

Fulham's best chance came after 15 minutes. Johnson gave the ball away to Luis Boa Morte. He cut in, rolled it past Nigel Martyn and turned away to celebrate only to see Gary Kelly clear off the line. It was another 22 minutes before either keeper was tested, but Martyn was alert enough to deal with Louis Saha's low shot.

Fulham, raising their game, went close through an Alain Goma header soon after the break. John Collins, from a free-kick conceded by Batty, then brought a good save from Martyn before Andy Melville produced a centre-half's finish after Boa Morte's shot had deflected into his path.

Boa Morte continued to trouble Leeds, but with the defence well marshalled by Ferdinand the best chances were from set-pieces. With 22 minutes left a deep free-kick found Goma, rising high at the far post. Martyn, twisting athletically, proved equal to his header.

Fowler, from 25 yards, gave the grateful Van der Sar a chance to warm up for a busy finish in which he denied Smith and Fowler again. The final whistle was greeted by a chorus of "what a waste of money". This was a bit rich coming from supporters of a club which lavished £11m on Steve Marlet. Had the chants been directed, not at Fowler, but at those neutrals who stumped up to watch this match on pay-per-view, they would have been on firmer ground.

Fulham (4-4-2): Van der Sar 5; Finnan 5, Melville 5, Goma 6, Brevett 5; Boa Morte 6, Malbranque 6, Legwinski 6 (Davis 5, 73), Collins 6; Hayles 4, Saha 4. Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), Clark, Ouaddou, Stolcers.

Leeds United (4-4-2): Martyn 6; Kelly 6, Mills 5, Ferdinand 6, Harte 5; Smith 3, Batty 4, Johnson 3, Kewell 4 (Dacourt 4, 69); Viduka 4, Fowler 5. Substitutes not used: Keane, Robinson (gk), Wilcox, Duberry.

Referee: G Poll (Tring) 7.

Bookings: Fulham: Legwinski. Leeds: Smith, Johnson.

Man of the match: Boa Morte.

Attendance: 20,918.