If Aston Villa are to break the big four's monopoly at the top of the Premier League they will have to do better than this. Victory at Villa Park yesterday would have seen Martin O'Neill's team climb above Manchester United into third position, but this was not the form of Champions' League contenders. In their previous two matches Villa had won away to Arsenal for the first time in 15 years and taken a home point against Manchester United for the first time in seven attempts. Although they hardly looked in danger of breaking another sequence by losing at home to Fulham in the League for the first time in 35 years, their failure to capitalise on their territorial superiority must be a cause for concern.
Roy Hodgson's team, nevertheless, are proving an increasingly difficult side to beat. This result followed a goalless draw at Liverpool last weekend and extended their current unbeaten run to five matches. "It's down to a lot of hard work and discipline," a satisfied Hodgson said after the match.
In the absence of the injured John Carew, Gabriel Agbonlahor was asked to plough a lone furrow in attack for Villa. James Milner barely got into the game wide on the right and although Gareth Barry and Steve Sidwell made plenty of supporting runs into the penalty area they were usually ineffective. As is so often the case with Villa, it was left to Ashley Young to provide their main threat from the left flank. The winger was a constant threat, whether cutting infield to shoot, crossing from a wide position or curling free kicks into the danger area.
On three occasions in the first half Young found Villa men free in the penalty area, but on each occasion their headers missed the target. Barry's glancing effort flew inches wide of the far post and Stiliyan Petrov headed over the bar with his back to goal before Sidwell missed arguably the best opportunity of the match. The midfielder timed his run to perfection to meet Young's beautifully flighted free-kick, but from six yards out sent his header over the bar.
Fulham appeared content to soak up the pressure. In the first half they barely threatened Brad Friedel, who was making a Premier League record 167th consecutive appearance. On the one occasion when the Villa goalkeeper was tested he moved smartly to push Clint Dempsey's effort from the edge of the penalty area over the bar.
Bobby Zamora and Andy Johnson are still finding their feet as an attacking partnership for Fulham and they struggled to find a way past Curtis Davies and Martin Laursen. When they did combine to set up Simon Davies midway through the second half the midfielder wasted a rare chance with a poor cross. Within minutes Fulham had their best opportunity. There was no faulting the power behind Dempsey's free shot from 10 yards, but it was straight at Friedel.
Villa's territorial domination was even greater after the interval, but a succession of early corners failed to provide a clear-cut opportunity. The closest Villa came to a goal was after 70 minutes, when Barry met yet another cross deep into the penalty area. Mark Schwarzer appeared to fumble the Villa captain's downward header but managed to get enough on it to deflect the ball on to the crossbar. Villa never got as close again.
"It was very disappointing," said O'Neill. "We came with really high hopes and with our confidence high from our results and performances in previous weeks though we always knew it was going to be difficult."
Referee: Mike Jones
Man of the match: A Young
Match rating: 3/10