The Fulham players embraced each other and saluted their delirious supporters, the Norwich players slumped to the Craven Cottage turf in disbelief that they had put so much into a match and come out of it with nothing. Both teams still have four games to play, but such was the importance being put on this match between relegation-threatened clubs that you would have thought that Fulham had guaranteed their Premier League safety and that Norwich were already down.
Hugo Rodallega, making only his third League start of the season, scored the winner, his second goal in as many games after being brought back into the team by new Fulham manager, Felix Magath. The Colombian forward also saw another header cleared off the line and contributed a vital last-ditch clearance in the second half to help secure a result that may prove almost as significant as it felt at the final whistle – for both sides.
Norwich remain two points ahead of the Londoners, and just outside the relegation places, but their situation is now perilous with four matches to play – winnable fixtures in Fulham’s case, while Norwich must face Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal.
Fulham have also put back-to-back victories together under Magath, while Norwich have won only one of their last eight games and lost seven in a row on the road. Their desperation to avoid relegation had cost Chris Hughton his job as Norwich manager a week ago, but the decision to replace him with Neil Adams so late in the season, although arguably justified by a much-improved performance, did not pay off.
“It’s very hard to take,” said the popular Adams, who played 206 games for Norwich in the 1990s and led their under-18 team to victory in the FA Youth Cup last season. “I couldn’t ask for any more, the desire, the commitment. We were tactically spot on and dominated the game. We made chances and couldn’t take them. That aside there’s not much you can fault the team for. Now we’ve got four huge games against four of the best teams in Europe, but the main positive is what we’ve seen from 14 players who looked a good passing side and made chances. “
He was right. Instead of an ugly, desperate struggle with football of any quality an afterthought and the result all-important, this was a surprisingly open and entertaining game, with an enterprising Norwich looking to land an early knockout blow rather than put men behind the ball.
Adams made six changes to the starting XI beaten at home by West Bromwich eight days ago, deploying his players in a Liverpool-style formation with a midfield diamond – and Nathan Redmond, in the Luis Suarez role, almost surprised Fulham keeper David Stockdale at his near post with their first effort on goal.
Fulham’s Pajtim Kasami and Rodallega hit low diagonal shots wide of John Ruddy’s goal, but both efforts came after breakaways, as Norwich pushed forward with conviction and energy, pressing Fulham high up the field when out of possession. And Norwich twice came close to taking the lead just short of the half-hour.
First Stockdale showed extraordinary reflexes to deny Ricky Van Wolfswinkel, jabbing out his right arm to parry the forward’s eight-yard volley from Martin Olsson’s cross from the left. From the resulting corner-kick, Leroy Fer got in an unchallenged header but Stockdale saved again. “That’s your luck when you haven’t scored all season,” said Adams of Van Wolfswinkel, the club’s £8.5m record signing, who scored on his debut at home to Everton but has not found the net since.
When Robert Snodgrass curled a free-kick against Fulham’s crossbar in the 33rd minute, it seemed only a matter of time before Norwich took the lead. But instead they paid for failing to make the most of their chances five minutes before half-time. Lewis Holtby sent in a free-kick from the left and it took enough of a touch off the brow of Steve Sidwell, lunging in at the near post, to wrong-foot the Norwich defenders, allowing Rodallega to half-volley into the roof of the net.
Norwich shrugged off the blow and in the second half Fer exchanged passes with Van Wolswinkel but his shot lacked venom and instead Fulham almost doubled their lead when Rodallega’s goal-bound header was cleared off the line by Olsson’s knee.
But Norwich swept back upfield and Bradley Johnson’s exquisite chip found Olsson’s run behind the Fulham defence. His touch took the ball past Stockdale, but Robert Snodgrass, sliding in, could only shoot wide, with the Norwich fans cheering what had seemed an unmissable goal. And after Amorebieta blocked Norwich substitute Gary Hooper’s shot, Michael Turner’s header was nodded away by Rodallega.
“There is still hope,” Magath said. “Now there are more people than four weeks ago who are thinking we will stay in the league.
Fulham (3-1-4-1-1): Stockdale; Heitinga, Hangeland, Amorebieta; Diarra (Kvist, 84); Riether, Sidwell, Holtby (Parker, 69), Richardson; Kasami (Dejagah, 57); Rodallega.
Norwich City (4-1-2-1-2): Ruddy; Whittaker, Martin, Turner, Olsson; Johnson; Fer (Hoolahan, 68), Howson (Murphy, 79); Snodgrass; Van Wolfswinkel (Hooper, 60), Redmond.
Referee: Mike Dean.
Man of the match: Rodallega (Fulham).
Match rating: 7/10