Fulham 1 Tottenham 2 match report: Lewis Holtby stunner helps Spurs edge Rene Meulensteen's battling Fulham
Substitute Lewis Holtby won the game with an exceptional goal
It was in the way that Andre Villas-Boas delighted in congratulating and embracing his players, even a scowling Jan Vertonghen who was being carried off with an injury, that you could see a burden lifted from the Tottenham manager. He had gone a goal down, shuffled his pack again and again and seized victory when it could have been so much worse.
Spurs' first win in five league games and a manager who felt like he was fighting the world on Sunday was suddenly three places up the Premier League to sixth position. It was Villas-Boas' decisions that went some way to saving the day but it was two exceptional strikes from Vlad Chiriches and the match-winner Lewis Holtby that rescued the three points.
On the touchline, the Spurs manager looked like a man with the proverbial 100-yard stare when Ashkan Dejagah scored the game's first goal before the hour. This was, Rene Meulensteen said, the response he had asked for from his players. And a goal up it felt like the new Fulham manager might just be able to launch a remarkable turnaround in the club's fortunes.
There is, however, a great deal of quality in this Spurs squad and to give Villas-Boas his due he kept changing until he found a formation that could win him the game. He played three different No 10s over the course of the night, starting with Paulinho in that role and then switching to Holtby, a half-time substitute before finally opting for Nacer Chadli, another second half replacement.
The Spurs manager also owed a lot to a masterful performance from Hugo Lloris in goal. The goalkeeper just edged out Dimitar Berbatov as the game's most influential player. He did much to thwart the former Spurs striker and his save towards the end from a deflected shot from Bryan Ruiz, a substitute, was critical.
It was a defeat for Meulensteen although this was a much improved Fulham from the side that have been capitulating for too long. They were applauded off by their own fans, which suggested that they recognised the difference in performance too. Afterwards Meulensteen was buoyant for a manager who later recalled how Sir Alex Ferguson had told him that all challenges should be embraced. Now 18th in the table and three points from safety, this is indeed a challenge but Fulham have games against fellow strugglers coming up over the next two months
In his starting XI, Villas-Boas recalled Erik Lamela, the club's record signing - as if he needed reminding - who began his shift on the right side of the attacking three. This is the Argentine's favoured side and, while he swapped with Aaron Lennon, it was from the left that Lamela's best moment came.
The Lamela dilemma is that the player needs games to adapt to English football. In the meantime, Spurs can ill afford a passenger. Even Villas-Boas admitted that it was a struggle for the £30m man on the right but that he had better chances on the left. It was from there he launched a run and shot with his left foot in the 31st minute which took a deflection on the way and prompted a good save from the Fulham goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg.
Lamela's best chance was made by Defoe, cutting the ball back for his team-mate who missed the target with his left foot. Lamela's evening ended when he was replaced by Andros Townsend with 12 minutes remaining. The kindest thing you could say about the Argentine is that he is still learning to cope with the challenges of English football.
Spurs ran up against a Fulham team who had rediscovered some of the edge that they will need if they are to survive in the Premier League under Meulensteen. With Giorgos Karagounis back in midfield alongside Scott Parker they were much more solid. When the best chance of the half was presented to Berbatov, however, his shot was well-saved by Lloris.
That was in the 23rd minute when Berbatov pulled down Pajtim Kasami's ball from the right, turned and struck a shot that the Spurs goalkeeper did very well to push around the post. As ever, there was no doubting Berbatov's touch when the ball was sent up to him. He did, however, find himself hustled out of possession on occasions, once by Lamela who embarked on one of his less successful runs on goal.
After the corner that followed Lloris' save from Berbatov, Spurs attacked immediately. A mistake from Sascha Riether let Lennon in and he spread the ball wide to Defoe who found Paulinho. The Brazilian, once again playing in the No 10 role, lifted his shot over the bar.
Villas-Boas changed that at half-time, bringing Paulinho back into the position Etienne Capoue had played alongside Sandro in the first half. The French midfielder was replaced by Holtby, more familiar to the playmaker role. It was intended to give Spurs the spark that they had lacked in the first half but within 11 minutes they were a goal behind.
First, Michael Dawson's pass out of defence was intercepted by Parker. The ball was worked to Berbatov and he slotted a pass from left to right to Dejagah, who was unmarked. The finish from Dejagah, across Lloris was excellent. It was the kind of chance that Berbatov's vision can create but it owed a lot to the determination of Fulham's midfield not to give their opponents an easy time in possession.
It put Villas-Boas in a tight spot. Having deployed Holtby in the more advanced role, he changed again. The Germany international was moved back to fulfil one of the two defensive midfield roles and Chadli came on for Sandro to push up in the No 10 position.
The equaliser came soon after. A sustained period of Spurs pressure earned a corner that was sliced clear by Fulham at the near post. Chiriches' low shot from 35 yards did not look promising at first but Stekelenburg inexplicably failed to react. The ball clipped the inside of his right post and went in. It had a touch of good fortune about it but then Villas-Boas may well have believed that was his due.
Even so, Berbatov still looked like the most accomplished player on the pitch. His near post flick from a cross by substitute Steve Sidwell from the left was saved by Lloris. Had Fulham's No 9 been presented with the ball in a few more promising situations by his team-mates, he might have been able to make the difference.
Tottenham's Lewis Holtby celebrates his winner, as Maarten Stekelenburg sinks to his knees (Getty)
As it was, Holtby decided the game with a brilliant moment of assertiveness. Kyle Walker rolled the ball inside from the right wing and Holtby took possession away from Townsend. The Spurs midfielder struck a left-foot shot past Stekelenburg that was the game's stand-out moment. In the closing stages, Villas-Boas had Lloris to thank for the three points, which he needed more than anyone.
Fulham (4-2-3-1): Stekelenburg; Riether, Senderos, Hughes, Riise; Karagounis (Sidwell 60), Parker (Ruiz 88 ); Dejagah, Kasami, Kacaniklic (Duff 86); Berbatov.
Tottenham (4-2-3-1): Lloris; Walker, Dawson, Chiriches, Vertonghen; Sandro (Chadli 69), Capoue (Holtby ht); Lamela (Townsend 78), Paulinho, Lennon; Defoe.
Referee M Clattenburg (Tyne and Wear).
Match rating 7/10.
Man of the match Lloris.
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