Ultimately, Fulham went to the back to go forwards. Despite a game and a build-up dominated by attackers, it was a player known more for his defensive qualities who decided this clash with Aston Villa.
Chris Baird did what the impressive Dimitar Berbatov and ineffective Darren Bent could not and struck brilliantly to secure a late win for Fulham and fuel their ambitious bid for European qualification. Villa, meanwhile, will become even more anxious about a potential relegation battle.
Despite such different prospects, though, there actually is not all that much between the teams on the evidence of this encounter. It was the very definition of mid-table. And, in that, it also offered performances that pretty much defined these teams’ seasons so far. Villa were compact and cohesive enough to suggest they should manage to avoid trouble but may well invite it as a simple consequence of the fact they don’t actually offer all that much in attack.
By contrast, Fulham were excellent to watch if a little too open. The quality of some of their attacking is the natural product of having so much technical talent in the team, with Berbatov the focal point.
It was not just the perfection of the Bulgarian’s touches, but the purpose of them. Although he was often accused of merely decorating games rather than dominating them at Manchester United, the less pressurised surroundings of Craven Cottage seem to have sufficiently calmed Berbatov to rediscover his sense of conviction. Here, he caused Villa all manner of problems.
Within four minutes, both he and Kieran Richardson had brought fine saves out of Brad Guzan, with Mladen Petric then heading narrowly over.
But while it may seem like Villa are something of a soft touch due to the fact they have endured their worst start since 1986, that is not quite the case on the pitch itself.
Midway through the first half, Ron Vlaar sent Berbatov crashing to the ground. Not only did it interrupt that attack, it appeared to ruin Fulham’s entire rhythm. From there, Villa regrouped and Gabriel Agbonlahor even came close to breaking the deadlock. Bent may not have been there to take advantage but, at the very least, he was on the pitch.
The striker has provided Villa’s main talking point over the past few weeks due to a perceived cool relationship with the manager Paul Lambert but, yesterday, he did not exactly offer much to shout about.
In many ways, Bent illustrates the big problem for old-fashioned strikers in the modern game. Although he offers goals, the lack of variety in the rest of his play actually constricts teams. Other than a flash in the second half, he was rarely involved in the build-up play and Villa often bypassed him.
For his part, Lambert revealed Christian Benteke was rested because of two hard games with Belgium but said he thought Bent “did fine and he worked well with Agbonlahor”.
Not well enough though. The only surprise when Lambert hauled him off for Benteke after 75 minutes was that the change did not come sooner.
Fulham’s manager Martin Jol, meanwhile, lamented the fact that his side did not make good on their own fine play earlier. Eventually, though, a midfield player who is not exactly used to scoring capitalised.
On 85 minutes, Baird used Berbatov as a decoy to stab home John Arne Riise’s delivery.
“It was probably the worst corner I’ve ever seen,” Jol joked afterwards. That didn’t matter to Baird. Nor did it matter to the Dutchman that it took so long to come. “It was a result that was probably ground out but I don’t care. We needed the points.”
Fulham (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Riether, Hughes, Hangeland, Riise; Rodallega, Sidwell (Karagounis, 84), Baird, Richardson (Dejagah, 70); Berbatov, Petric (Diarra, 64).
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Guzan; Lowton, Vlaar, Baker (Lichaj, 62), Bennett; Holman, El Ahmadi, Ireland (N’Zogbia, 66), Delph; Agbonlahor, Bent (Benteke, 75).
Referee: Chris Foy
Man of the match: Berbatov (Fulham)
Match rating: 6/10