I had this recap written in my head. It was going to be all about how a Villa side full of youth and inexperience went into Craven Cottage and fought out a scrappy, impressive win against a quality, veteran Premier League side. Well, that'll learn me.
Things were fairly uneventful for the first half hour with each team crafting some decent attacking play without putting much of a threat on goal aside from Nathan Delfouneso missing just wide with a header and Brad Friedel making a heroic kicked save of Clint Dempsey's strike just minutes later. Things took an ugly turn in the 35th when Nigel Reo-Coker was removed for Ciaran Clark with Villa's captain suffering an injury. The team looked undeterred and kept up the attack, Delfouneso putting another header just over the bar five minutes before the half.
We were treated to the goal of the season in the 42nd minute when Barry Bannan sent an absolutely gorgeous pass 40 yards across the pitch that was gathered with a brilliant first-touch and finished clinically to put Villa ahead 1-0 going into the half. Every aspect of the goal was incredible; Bannan's delivery was gutsy, heady and picture perfect and Albrighton's composure and shot equally so. It was a fantastic lead in to a bright, even and entertaining first half and the boost to Villa's confidence that it provided was readily apparent. The claret and blue came out of the locker room running, thoroughly dominating the first 15 minutes of the second frame but yet again unable to capitalize on the momentum. Things switched back the other way with Andy Johnson's introduction at the 60 minute mark and his impact was immediately apparent with Fulham getting forward with much more pace and consistently creating chances far more than they were able to do earlier on in the going.
Villa were saved twice by Richard Dunne in the 62nd and 66th minute, first by a diving header to deny Danny Murphy what would have been a stunning goal and again five minutes later when he got in the way of a dangerous looking cross from Clint Dempsey. There were shouts for a penalty in the second case but replays showed that the referee's decision to ignore them was the correct one. The 68th minute brought with it a bit of unpleasantness when Luke Young put an absolutely crunching tackle of Fulham defender Carlos Salcido which required the Mexican international to be assisted off the field and removed from the game with Damien Duff brought on in his place. There was almost certainly no ill intent in Young's challenge and it caught all of the ball with the injury coming on the follow through. It's tempting to want to affix blame whenever an injury occurs but in this case it didn't come late, it got every bit of the ball and Salcido's ankle just happened to end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Salcido was seen walking under his own power towards the touchline albeit with a sizable icepack taped to the ankle and is expected to miss Fulham's match against Chelsea on Wednesday at the very least which is a real blow for the Cottagers.
The break in the action seemed to allow Villa to regain some composure and the final 15 minutes brought several excellent chances for both sides. Brad Friedel made a pair of stunning saves against Andy Johnson late on, the first coming on a low strike that looked destined towards the bottom corner of the net with Friedel getting just enough of a touch on the ball to divert it away. Johnson's second chance looked significantly more dangerous when he found himself completely alone in space just inside the box; to be honest Johnson most likely could have taken just a touch and beaten Friedel from distance but he instead chose to try and dribble around him and Villa's keeper sprung out of goal and pounced on the ball, neutralizing the threat. Villa themselves had several chances to put the game away late, none more promising than Ashley Young's diving header of a smart cross from Stewart Downing. It was brilliantly done by Young, who otherwise turned in one of his worst performances of the season; seeing Mark Schwarzer adjust his position to prepare for a header towards the far post, Young froze just before jumping and instead launched himself towards the ground and the ball towards the near corner. As excellent an attempt as it was for Ashley he was outdone by Schwarzer as the Australian keeper switched course and got his fingertips on the ball to send it agonizingly behind for a corner. It was simply a case of everyone doing their best and the other side coming out on top, and in situations like that there's little you can do but tip your cap and move on.
Gerard Houllier used his second sub 88 minutes in with Delfouneso being brought of in favor of Stephen Ireland. Perplexing at the time, given a chance to mull it over I can understand Houllier's intention. Villa moved into what amounted to a 4-6-0 after the sub, with Ireland and Young playing in mostly even positions in the attack. Ireland is of course not at all a good defender, but his being on the pitch in a midfield position did make things more crowded in the center and though the formation was more defensive than what Villa had shown to that point bringing on Ireland was not a signal that the search for a second goal had been abandoned in the same way that bringing on Cuellar, Sidwell or Lichaj would have been. There's a case to be made for the latter strategy, but I'm hesitant to second guess Houllier in this case. And to be fair, Stephen Ireland showed more in the six minutes that he played today than he has all season, sending several brilliant through balls into the path of teammates. He looked like a strong creative force. He looked the player all of us thought we were getting. I don't want to get ahead of myself, but it was incredibly encouraging. If he can show that form when given more time in a different situation, a goal will come of it.
Things looked to be settling in late on, with Villa mostly keep possession in their own half and keeping Fulham out of dangerous positions when they came back the other way. It looked to be all but over with less than a minute of the announced added time left to play when the ball was cleared out of the box and Damian Duff desperately gave chase with Marc Albrighton just behind. Duff stopped short just as he got to the ball and Albrighton, prone to a bit of over-exuberance, crashed into him giving Fulham the free kick. Danny Murphy's delivery was brilliant, Brede Hangeland out-leapt Ciaran Clark in the bo and Brad Friedel was powerless to stop it. When the ball went into the net, the clock read 93:58.
If told beforehand that the game would end in a 1-1 draw I think most Villa supporters would have been happy. But the way it happened is absolutely crushing. Villa weren't dominant and they didn't necessarily "deserve" to win in the typical sense of the word, but it felt like those three points had been well earned. In the end a draw is fair, but so would have been a victory. The look on Marc Albrighton's face as the final whistle blew absolutely summed things up. Here was a team with a winger and center back fresh from the reserves playing in the central midfield, three of their four strikers and both of their captains out with injury and the only transfer window signing banished to the bench. To have this game in end in such a way was absolutely heartbreaking. In the moment I was furious, but now I just feel bad for the kids.
Some quick bullet points:
- Barry Bannan was incredible. The only positive about Reo-Coker's injury is that it will ensure that he is given an extended spell to show what he's capable of in the position. If he can do this with regularity then a Bannan/Reo-Coker pairing is the best Villa can put out there regardless of anyone's injury status.
- I'm still not entirely convinced about the Ciaran Clark as midfielder experiment. The youngster had a decent game in relief of Reo-Coker, but if he's going to be playing off the back line it needs to be in a less advanced position.
- I'm similarly unconvinced that Ashley Young as a withdrawn forward will ever turn out to be a good idea. Young was frankly quite awful today, and at a certain point he goes to "not yet comfortable" "bad" and we might be getting near it. The problem is, where do you put him? Downing and Albrighton have both been brilliant. I suppose you have to just hope he gets better.
- Nathan Delfouneso wasn't able to find his way onto the score sheet, but he had a pretty good day all considered. He was pretty regularly in good positions and his quality hold-up play was a pleasant surprise. He's a different player than I'd thought be might be, sort of a hybrid Heskey-Agbonlahor type. That's not a bad thing to have.
- Richard Dunne really looks to me like he's finally back to full health. He put in his best game of the season to date and Fulham were totally unable to create through the middle all day.
- Brad Friedel is amazing.
In the end, this wasn't a bad result but it sure did feel like it. I think most of us are resigned to finishing lower than we have the past few years, and I think that as long as the youngsters are brought into the squad and show improvement I think most of us are okay with that. But it might be one of those things that we're okay with in retrospect, because in the moment it sure as hell doesn't feel okay. There were so many positive things to take from this game, and yet nearly four hours later I'm still furious with the way things ended. The way things have shaken out so far in the league, Villa are still legitimately close to the top four even with their current position of 14th. Their also terrifyingly close to the relegation zone, and though neither are at all likely to end up coming to fruition it certainly is better to get points than to give them away with the middle of the table as packed as it is. This was a game that I though Villa would draw that they came seconds away from winning that they ended up drawing which felt like a loss. It was weird, and it sucked.
Boys, getting a point (especially away from home) is almost always an acceptable result but from now on, let's try to do it in a way that less horrifically soul-crushing.