Blackburn Rovers, promoted behind Fulham last season, were left in their slipstream again yesterday and sank beneath Bolton into the bottom three of the Premiership for the first time. They will stay there for some while, not having another League game for three weeks because of commitments in the FA Cup and Worthington Cup.
To make matters worse, Graeme Souness will have to do without two of his most important players, the gifted midfielder Tugay Kerimoglu and Craig Short, both of whom will now miss the Worthington final against Tottenham. Tugay collected a booking that means a suspension and Short was sent off for the third time this season after apparently elbowing Steve Marlet.
Unlucky early on, when they hit the bar and post, Souness's team eventually fell victim to a resurgence of confidence and positive play from Fulham, who had scored only six goals in nine previous games. Marlet, the creator of both goals, typified it, looking something more like an £11m striker at last, and happier playing through the middle than when stuck out wide, as he was in the bore-draw against Aston Villa a week ago.
Steed Malbranque was also back to his best, driving forward from his position at the head of the midfield diamond and scoring the second goal to accentuate the home team's self-belief. "We started very well and we were bossing the game," Souness said with every justification. "But from our point of view, both goals were very, very poor."
Nor did Souness appreciate the performance of the referee, Mark Halsey, who began the game in finnicky fashion by flourishing his yellow card three times in seven minutes. "Where is the game going?" the Blackburn manager demanded.
It was going his team's way for 20 minutes yesterday, during which David Dunn's smart pass sent Andy Cole through to hit a crisp shot against a post, and Henning Berg met Damien Duff's corner with a volley that Edwin van der Sar only just diverted on to the bar. The home defence, at that stage, were hardly justifying their status as the meanest in the Premiership.
Nor was Fulham's football flowing on a poor pitch, heavily watered to provide some extra zip. At last they threatened a goal, Marlet swivelling to hit a post, and then scored one; the Frenchman burst forward and Berg handled his cross but the referee sensibly waited before blowing for a penalty and saw Barry Hayles drive in the loose ball.
They pressed forward with some urgency after half-time but were undone on the break in the 65th minute. A free-kick just outside the Fulham penalty area came to nothing and Hayles led a swift counter which finished with Marlet crossing and Malbranque arriving for a volley that looped into the net off Brad Friedel. "We're in a difficult situation but not an impossible one and we have to show what we're made of," said Souness with a typically defiant air.Reuse content