It was hard to remember, as Fulham gleefully tore into Aston Villa on Sunday, that the Martin Jol era ended just one week ago. This was only Rene Meulensteen’s second game in charge – and no-one knows how his tenure will turn out – but he seems to have transformed the side already.
Fulham were full of confidence, energy and enthusiasm yesterday and could have beaten Villa by two or three times their winning margin. They started well enough, scoring both their goals within nine first-half minutes, but improved as the game went on, with belief returning to the players and fans, producing some delightful football in a very enjoyable second half.
Coaching is how Meulensteen has made his reputation and that is how he has explained his quick success. “We reassured them on the training pitch, to tell them what’s needed, the hard work and commitment, and instructed how I believe we should play. We were excellent on Wednesday [when Fulham lost 2-1 to Spurs] and the energy was excellent.”
“The players should be delighted with themselves. We were even better today, with the quality going forward.”
Fulham’s best attacking player, and the most important man for Meulensteen’s future at the club, is Dimitar Berbatov, who appeared to be enjoying his football again. This had not been an easy season so far for the striker, and he may well not be at Craven Cottage for much longer, but here he seemed like a man Meulensteen could build around.
Berbatov was involved in the first goal but showed his brilliance for the second. He was in the centre-circle as the ball was cleared upfield towards him. With that combination of imagination, vision and skill that few possess, Berbatov flicked the ball on to Alexander Kacaniklic.
Running into the box, Kacaniklic drew a foul from Leandro Bacuna and referee Mike Dean awarded the penalty. Paul Lambert, the Villa manager, said he was “disappointed” with the decision, understandably, but Berbatov casually rolled the ball into the bottom corner of the net. From there, he played like Fulham’s conductor, directing his team-mates and setting the tempo.
“It shows he cares,” said Meulensteen, who must know that Berbatov is the likeliest player to keep Fulham up, if he can just convince him to stay.
“He makes a difference, absolutely. He was excellent on Wednesday as well, but you saw what he’s capable of out there. I had a good chat with him. Berbatov’s not a stranger. He’s committed to Fulham.”
Berbatov was involved in the first goal, too. Ashkan Dejagah knocked the ball towards Steve Sidwell, running diagonally away from goal. Bacuna was ahead of him but Sidwell was too quick and strong, outmuscling the right-back and producing a surprisingly good left-footed finish to send the ball into the far bottom corner from a tight angle.
The goal had been coming, after Dejagah was denied by a desperate Ciaran Clark tackle, and Kacaniklic had a shot blocked on the line, but it was only after going ahead that their football started to flow. Five minutes after the second goal Brad Guzan made an excellent low save from Berbatov’s stabbed shot.
Fulham were far better in the second half, even though they never managed a third. Berbatov nearly flicked in Dejagah’s low ball from the right before Philippe Senderos headed Kacaniklic’s cross straight at Guzan. Berbatov uncharacteristically sliced a volley into the stands before Giorgos Karagounis made Fabian Delph look like the veteran 36-year-old, skipping past him and shooting just over. John Arne Riise headed against the post before Meulensteen shut down the game with late substitutions.
Aston Villa were barely in it, except for a brief spell at 0-0. Christian Benteke, back in after starting on the bench at Southampton, headed Gabriel Agbonlahor’s cross wide and had a shot saved by Maarten Stekelenburg. That was as threatening as Villa were, with not much creativity from midfield. Lambert, who thought they might have had a penalty for a late trip on Agbonlahor, admitted that they got what they deserved.
“I don’t think we did enough to win the game,” said the Scot, whose five-game unbeaten run is now over.
“I think we looked tired, but I couldn’t fault the lads for effort. You have to hold your hand up sometimes. Five games unbeaten was great. Put it into perspective, we’re still only three points off Manchester United.”
Fulham (4-1-4-1) Stekelenberg 6; Riether, Senderos 7, Hughes 7, Riise 6; Parker 7; Dejagah 7, Sidwell 7, Karagounis 7 (Kasami, 73), Kacanikilic 6 (Duff, 77); Berbatov 8
Villa (4-3-1-2) Guzan 6; Bacuna 3, Herd 4 (Lowton, 81), Clark 5, Baker 5; El Ahmadi 4 (Tonev, 45, 4), Westwood 6, Delph 5; Weimann 5 (Albrighton, 81); Agbonlahor 5, Benteke 4
Man of the match: Berabtov (Fulham)
Match rating: 6/10