Six days after a harsh spot-kick decision had gone against them at Leeds, City were denied their own penalty chance when Alain Goma sent Jon Macken tumbling inthe area and then compounded the problem by handling the ball. On neither occasion did Teesside official Jeff Winter rule against the defender and his answer was also negative when City skipper Sylvain Distin sentLuis Boa Morte flying 10 minutes from time.
Television replays indicated Winter got it wrong on both occasions, which was totally in keeping with the rest of a game where the error count was far inexcess of any vestiges of flair. The point was just what Cottagers boss Chris Coleman seemed to have settled for when, having lost four key players to injury in the 48 hours prior tokick-off, he opted to pack the midfield and force City to play their waythrough.
The tactic worked almost perfectly in a drab encounter almost completely lacking in any goalmouth action until a late flurry of activity that followedBoa Morte's failed penalty claim. While the point lifted City one place in the table, Portsmouth's win at Blackburn has landed the Blues in more relegation strife, news that absent bossKevin Keegan would hardly welcome as he recovers from a back complaint whichrequired a cortisone injection earlier in the week. Yet, if Keegan had personally selected one game to miss from a largely frustrating season, this was it. With Steve McManaman consigned to the stands with a calf injury and England hopeful Shaun Wright-Phillips producing one of the worst performances of anotherwise highly impressive campaign, the Blues were devoid of attackinginvention and their attempts to muscle their way into positions of promiseusually stalled long before they had got near the Fulham box.
Antoine Sibierski was heavily involved in the decent possession City did have. The Frenchman provided the near post cross that Robbie Fowler met with a firmenough flick but without sufficient angle to really trouble Edwin van der Sar. Sibierski then seemed to get his feet stuck when he was played onside by a slow-moving Fulham defence and found Claudio Reyna's header landing in closeproximity and was unable to unleash any sort of shot on goal when he looked verywell placed.
Having decided there was no way through by keeping the ball on the deck, both sides opted for the aerial route after half-time. Barry Hayles was blocked off by Distin as he attempted to reach Edwin van der Sar's long punt forward, then Robbie Fowler completely mis-hit his volley whenhe played an intricate one-two with Nicolas Anelka after Sibierski had looped apass to the edge of the Fulham box. It was a minute short of the hour mark before David James was forced into his first meaningful save, a full-length parry from Sean Davis' angled effort thatthe impressive Richard Dunne was on hand to boot clear.
Arthur Cox's bold decision to replace mis-firing Robbie Fowler and Nicolas Anelka with Macken and Paulo Wanchope would have paid instant dividends hadWinter not controversially ruled against the substitute's 66th-minute doublepenalty claim. After a brief flurry of activity which followed that incident, the play swiftly slumped back to the pitiful pattern of what had gone before.
If talent was not going to win the day, a mistake might have done had Distin's foolhardy attempt to make up for gifting Boa Morte possession by the touchlinerightfully ended up with the concession of a penalty. The decision seemed more obvious than the first but Winter again said no, much to the anger of Coleman who flew out of his dug-out to vent his frustration. Amid the anger, Fulham briefly let their guard slip and van der Sar was forced to make two excellent saves to deny Wanchope and Macken, then James replied withone of his own, rising quickly to prevent Steed Malbranque swooping on therebound after the England man had turned away Davis' long-range drive to ensurea point neither side deserved any more than.