Both teams had gone four league games without a win, but despite a bright start from Fulham it was Aston Villa that claimed the three points and put an end to Fulham’s 11-game unbeaten run at home.
With the sun shining down on Craven Cottage, Fulham promised much early on, with the Whites creating the best of the opening chances with Bobby Zamora, Damien Duff and the returning Simon Davies all testing the Villa goal inside 10 minutes.
It was a positive start indeed for the hosts, but it wasn’t long before Villa started to show the type of football that has won them so many admirers this season with Ashley Young, Gabriel Agbonlahor and James Milner looking lively on the ball.
This week Villa manager Martin O’Neill had described his side’s run of forthcoming fixtures as a “make or break” phase of their season and his players looked intent on showing they were up for the challenge.
Stewart Downing crossed for Heskey who could only move Mark Schwarzer into a routine stop, before the Australian goalkeeper was forced into a smart low save to deny Ashley Young following Milner’s clever pass.
Having missed the majority of the season through injury, it had been a welcome return for Davies but the Welsh international’s contribution was cut short with the midfielder limping off and replaced by Zoltan Gera.
Within moments of coming on Gera had a close-range shot blocked by James Collins, while Danny Murphy was snuffed out on the edge of the box by Stiliyan Petrov’s desperate lunge.
With little more than 30 minutes gone Schwarzer made a super save to deny Villa captain Petrov, with the Bulgarian meeting Ashley Young’s pin-point cross with a brave header.
At the end other end Erik Nevland almost took advantage when Friedel spilled Gera’s hopeful strike from distance, but the American shot-stopper just managed to claw the ball back.
Buoyed by that chance Fulham pushed forward again and opened the visiting defence with Zamora breaking free. Unfortunately his shot was deflected over following Richard Dunne’s timely intervention.
From the resulting corner Chris Baird went close with a stooping header, and after a goal-mouth scramble Villa managed to clear the ball to safety.
From that the visitors broke forward and when they won a corner down the right, Petrov’s delivery was turned in by Agbonlahor whose clever header had Schwarzer well-beaten with four minutes of the first half remaining.
Fulham replied almost immediately and when Duff was upended on the edge of the Villa box, Murphy’s resulting free-kick curled narrowly wide.
However, within seconds Villa were on the attack again and when the ball fell to Agbonlahor just inside the Fulham box, the striker kept his nerve and curled in a delightful left-footed strike beyond the reach of Schwarzer to double the visitors’ lead and nab his 10th league goal of the season.
After the break, Villa continued to impress with Ashley Young and Downing swapping flanks and Agbonlahor’s pace stretching play.
One such moment of play saw Downing drill in a low strike from the left while Schwarzer had to be alert to get to the ball before one Agbonlahor burst of pace.
Approaching the hour mark, Murphy’s teasing lofted pass found Gera at the back post, and the Hungarian did well to bring the ball down and force a sprawling save from Friedel, with Hangeland heading the subsequent corner over the bar.
Fulham certainly began to see more of the ball in the second-half, but for all their possession the Whites just could not make the breakthrough in the final third with half chances falling for both Nevland and Zamora.
The latter did well to tee up Gera on the edge of the Villa box on 67 minutes, with the midfielder’s strike forcing another corner from which 20-year-old Chris Smalling almost diverted home with an angled header.
Substitute David Elm did have the ball in the net after 75 minutes doing well to slide home Gera’s delicate cross, but the Swede’s cool finish was ruled offside – a decision that looked close to call.
Sensing that they may well find that elusive breakthrough the Whites pushed forward intently with Zamora doing much to unsettle the Villa back four.
A fantastic cross from Bjorn Helge Riise led to another goal mouth scramble and when the ball rolled to Elm, Dunne did just enough to turn the ball out of play. Hangeland rose highest to the resulting corner but the Norwegian’s header arrowed wide.
It was a brave final 15 minutes for the hosts who deserved a goal for their late endeavour, but there would be few that begrudge the visitors their points with O’Neill’s side showing the type of form that could make it a season to remember for the Villans.
The visitors face fellow UEFA Champions League hopefuls Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United next, while Roy Hodgson’s side have the chance to bounce back on Wednesday evening when they face Portsmouth at the Cottage before travelling to Bolton Wanderers in seven days' time.