Fulham used to be predictable – usually winning at home, seldom winning away.
These, though, are strange days for Craven Cottage regulars, who saw their team follow up a victory away to West Bromwich with another below-par home performance yesterday. Martin Jol’s team have now recorded only one home victory in seven League matches, and only two wins anywhere in the last 13.
Yesterday they took the lead against Wigan Athletic with a spectacular strike from Giorgos Karagounis but could not add to it and paid the price. Although Fulham almost won the game late on, defeat would have been hard on a resilient Wigan side who forced the save of the match from Mark Schwarzer and deservedly climbed out of the bottom three.
Fulham are not quite in a relegation struggle yet, and Jol believes they will not be, but he admitted that two shots on target from the attacking team he had fielded was worrying. “It’s always the same story,” he said. “We need another goal but we can’t get it. We played with seven offensive players, and it was a gamble. We have a problem with balance, but we have quality and it will see us through.”
Wigan started the game well, but Fulham began to dominate possession through Dimitar Berbatov and Bryan Ruiz and it was a surprise when Berbatov failed to control Ruiz’s clever chip over the defence. Mladen Petric was wasteful with two good chances, shooting high from a free-kick and then after taking Berbatov’s pass inside from the left.
So it was no surprise when Fulham went ahead after 22 minutes as Karagounis took possession 35 yards out, produced a sudden burst of acceleration that fooled a defender, and hit a shot from 22 yards that sped past the right hand of the diving Ali Al-Habsi and in off the base of the post. It was the 35-year-old former Greece captain’s second memorable strike at the Hammersmith End in eight days, following the dipping volley in the FA Cup third-round tie against Blackpool that had kept Fulham in the competition.
Fulham remained in control but without testing Al-Habsi, even from a series of free-kicks – since Karagounis is a dead-ball expert and had shown that he knew where the goal is, it was mysterious that Petric and Kieran Richardson were allowed to keep squandering them.
It proved costly for Fulham. Shaun Maloney fired a warning shot for the top corner after 55 minutes but Schwarzer flung himself to his left and got just enough of the ball to touch it on to the crossbar. But the save only delayed the inevitable.
In the 71st minute, Franco Di Santo cut in from the left, went past some token challenges and let fly from the edge of the penalty area, the ball beating Schwarzer high past the keeper’s left hand.
The Argentinian nearly gave Wigan the lead shortly after, his low shot from the right bouncing off Schwarzer and wide, and the goalkeeper saved once more when Di Santo went through another feeble challenge.
The Fulham fans were jeering at that point, but their team could have won the match in the final seconds but for an astonishing clearance. Ruiz robbed Ronnie Stam and shot past Al-Habsi only for Maynor Figueroa to produce a diving header off the goalline.
“It was a special clearance,” the Wigan manager Roberto Martinez said. “Between their goal and that action I thought we were the better side. It would have been all too easy to accept Fulham’s momentum. Getting results is a question of what you do in both boxes and it’s easy to see the improvements we’ve made.”
The negative was the probable loss for the season of the defender Ivan Ramis with suspected cruciate ligament damage. “I fear the worst,” said Martinez. “We will miss him.”
Fulham (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Riether, Hughes, Hangeland, Richardson; Duff (Baird, 82), Karagounis, Ruiz, Kacaniklic (Dejagah, 87); Berbatov; Petric (Rodallega, 65).
Wigan (3-5-1-1): Al-Habsi; Ramis (Stam, 90), Caldwell, Figueroa; Boyce, McArthur, McCarthy, Jones (Gomez, 65), Beausejour; Maloney; Di Santo.
Referee: Mark Clattenburg.
Man of the match: Schwarzer (Fulham)
Match rating: 6/10