Malbranque puts paid to Leeds' fitful hopes

Leeds United 0 Fulham 1
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The Independent Online

For Leeds, the chance of sneaking into next season's Champions' League qualifiers always looked tenuous after a season that has proved disappointing, regardless of extenuating circumstances. This result, combined with Newcastle's thumping of Charlton, finally killed off their hopes of clawing their way up to fourth place in the Premiership.

For Leeds, the chance of sneaking into next season's Champions' League qualifiers always looked tenuous after a season that has proved disappointing, regardless of extenuating circumstances. This result, combined with Newcastle's thumping of Charlton, finally killed off their hopes of clawing their way up to fourth place in the Premiership.

After winning five of their previous seven matches, Leeds were entitled to anticipate more. But even with Rio Ferdinand back after a month's absence to reinforce the back line, they were beaten by French under-21 international Steed Malbranque's second-half goal, which gave Mohamed Al Fayed's expensively constructed team their first away win since 2 January.

Fulham now have 40 points, normally regarded as the benchmark for Premiership survival. Nothing is guaranteed yet, but it seems unlikely they will be caught, with third-from-bottom Ipswich seven points adrift. "I still think we need 41," their assistant manager, Christian Damiano, said, "but 40 will probably be enough."

Fulham's relief contrasted with the gloom hanging over Leeds, for whom 60 points will be enough only for the Uefa Cup. The Elland Road crowd rounded on their players at the final whistle, dismayed not so much by chances missed as the way in which a patchy performance, riddled with petty fouls, had petered out miserably in the final half-hour.

Their disappointment was not lost on David O'Leary, although the Leeds manager preferred to adopt a more positive view. "After the season we've had, with all the things that have gone on, I have to tell myself that we've salvaged something," he said. "We could be mid-table but we're in the Uefa Cup automatically. A few months ago, I would have been grateful for that."

O'Leary's players' execution did not match their intent. Fulham needed to be on their toes defensively, particularly in the first half and at the start of the second, but the example of Alain Goma ensured that they were and such chances as Leeds had were wasted.

The best fell to Robbie Keane. However, the Irishman's far-post volley after 26 minutes missed by so much that the ball went out for a throw-in. Then, with only Edwin van der Saar to beat, he dragged his shot wide. Robbie Fowler, who was denied a goal by Lee Bowyer's foul on Van der Saar, also had a close-range header saved.

But the hosts' first-half display was undermined by their uglier side. Alan Smith, Bowyer and David Batty were allowed in turn to get away with some X-certificate stuff, as referee Rob Styles took a lenient approach where action was needed.

Fulham had made only a couple of meaningful incursions into Leeds territory, although a delightful one-two played by Louis Saha off Sean Davis was a reminder of their technical gifts. Another came seven minutes into the second half from Malbranque. At the edge of a crowded penalty area, Saha moved the ball out to his left. A shot by Goma was blocked but fell to Malbranque, whose low drive carried too much force for Nigel Martyn and brought him his 10th goal of the season.

Leeds kept Fulham under pressure at first. But after Van der Saar had saved well from Keane and Fowler had blazed high their heads dropped.

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