Fulham's search for a goalscorer is becoming more urgent than Aston Villa's quest for a new manager. While Villa's able Finnish goalkeeper Peter Enckelman pointed out on Saturday how little John Gregory's departure had affected day-to-day routine, the men in white shirts whose laboured efforts he had thwarted continue to exasperate the Fulham crowd and coaches.
Back in August a lack of goals seemed as unlikely a problem for the newly elevated west London club as a lack of money. Louis Saha, Luis Boa Morte and Barry Hayles had scored with such ease and regularity last season that they looked certain to flourish at the higher level; even so, Jean Tigana had no compunction about spending another £11.5m of Mohamed Al Fayed's lucre on Steve Marlet from Lyon. The three established forwards duly got off the mark by early September, but, astonishingly, Saha has managed two goals in the Premiership since then, and Boa Morte none at all. Marlet, meanwhile, broke a bone in his leg and now has two goals from 12 League games.
Other damning statistics are plentiful: the team as a whole have scored just eight times in the past 12 Premiership matches; have scraped two victories out of seven with odd-goal wins over the relegation candidates Derby County and Middlesbrough; only six different players have scored all season; no side have a higher proportion of their shots missing the target.
Hayles' waywardness when presented with one of the few opportunities against Villa was characteristic. Home supporters, who cry "hoof!" whenever an opponent hits a long ball, were happy to see their goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar thump one 80 yards to put Hayles clear, but the striker's lob was far too high. On the one occasion he did better, Enckelman, deputising for the injured Peter Schmeichel, made a low save as accomplished as his earlier stop from Zat Knight.
With Boa Morte unavailable, Tigana had thrown the alternative trio on from the start, only to find that neither Marlet nor Saha were comfortable playing out wide. The subsequent interchanging seemed to disrupt Fulham more than Villa. "We need more determination when we're inside the box," the manager said. "We have to give the players more confidence. But it is not only the strikers."
In looking for a new one, he is handicapped by the fact that Fulham's reputation abroad does not match their spending power. Catch 22 is that, until they reach European competition, leading foreign players will not come to the club, but even the Uefa Cup will be beyond them if they cannot strengthen a thin squad.
Villa, as ever, are Uefa Cup contenders, but nothing more, settled in their habitual seventh place in the table with a large gap on either side of them. The task for a new manager – Lothar Matthäus, Roberto Mancini and Roy Hodgson are the latest candidates to receive a mention – will be to make the leap into the top six despite working for a chairman more concerned with diligent housekeeping than Al Fayed is.
Fulham (4-3-3): Van der Sar 6; Finnan 7, Melville 6, Goma 6, Harley 7; Legwinski 3, Knight 6 (Goldbaek 5, 62), Malbranque 6; Marlet 4, Hayles 4, Saha 4. Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), Ouaddou, Trollope, Willcock.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Enckelman 8; Delaney 6, Mellberg 7, Staunton 6, Samuel 6; Hadji 7, Boateng 6, Hendrie 5 (Stone, 86), Merson 7; Vassell 5, Angel 6 (Kachloul, 77). Substitutes not used: Wright, Dublin, Myhill (gk).
Referee: M Matthias (York) 7.
Bookings: Fulham Saha. Aston Villa Baoteng, Hadji.
Man of the match: Enckelman.
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