Fulham's fine start to 2011 continued on Saturday with Mark Hughes' team taking a point against Aston Villa at Villa Park. Fulham twice came from behind thanks to second half goals from Andrew Johnson and Clint Dempsey.
Mark Hughes retained the same starting eleven that beat Newcastle United 1-0 at the Cottage on Wednesday evening for Saturday’s Barclays Premier League clash against Aston Villa.
Fulham’s January signings, and a return to fitness of key players, handed Hughes arguably his strongest squad of the campaign so far. Gael Kakuta and Eidur Gudjohnsen were named on Fulham’s bench, while former Villa midfielder Steve Sidwell lined up against his old club as Hughes’ side looked to build on an impressive start to the second half of the year.
Gerard Houllier’s Villa team featured three new recruits, including the club’s record signing Darren Bent. The other two new names on Villa’s team sheet was that of Cameroon midfielder Jean Makoun and Kyle Walker. There was no place for American international Michael Bradley however, a further signing made during the January transfer window.
Both teams went on the offensive from the first whistle, making for a fine spectacle, with Damien Duff and Ashley Young looking particularly dangerous in the opening exchanges down the flanks. After just six minutes of play Bent latched onto Mark Schwarzer’s parry from Stewart Downing’s strike to score from close range, but as the striker turned to celebrate, the linesman’s flag was raised for offside.
After 13 minutes Villa did open the scoring with John Pantsil the unfortunate recipient of Downing’s cross at the far post. Under pressure from Gabriel Agbonlahor, just a few yards from goal, Pantsil headed the ball across goal into the back of Fulham’s net to give Villa the lead.
Steve Sidwell almost pulled Fulham level after 18 minutes with a drive from the edge of the area, but Friedel was well positioned to deal with the shot and the minor deflection the ball took on the way to goal.
Villa were constantly looking to utilise the pace and attacking guile of Young and Agbonlahor down the left flank but Villa’s most potent threat came down the right hand side, in the form of Downing, whose ability to cut inside and deliver from out wide was a constant menace during the first half.
For all of Villa’s attacking intent, the most skilful player on show wore the white shirt of Fulham. Mousa Dembele’s close control, balance and vision was a pleasure to watch and the Belgium international left several markers for dead during the first-half exchanges.
The play ebbed and flowed towards the half hour mark as a goal for either side would seemingly tip the balance of the match. Sidwell almost swung it back in Fulham’s favour again after 37 minutes with a left footed drive from 20 yards. On this occasion Friedel was not called into action as Sidwell’s shot flew wide of goal.
Villa had an opportunity before the break from a set piece but the home side’s opportunities were few and far between in the final 15 minutes of the first half. Fulham probed with a number of deliveries from out wide into the box but a final finish proved elusive.
Things looked to take a turn for the worse right before half time when Dembele limped off the pitch injured after taking an apparent knock to his right leg. The striker made it out for the second half in attempt to run the injury off but never looked comfortable.
Fulham made a bright start to the second period though and within five minutes of the restart, Sidwell almost pulled Fulham level once again.
However, Sidwell’s fourth strike from distance paid dividends after 51 minutes when Friedel could only parry another stinging shot from 20 yards, with Andrew Johnson first on the scene to bravely head the ball home from six yards. Fulham were back in the game and deservedly so.
On the hour mark Mark Hughes made his first change of the match, replacing Pantsil with Carlos Salcido, with Chris Baird moved to right-back with the Mexican taking up his natural position on the left.
Just how well Andrew Johnson played on Saturday was highlighted by the reception the former Birmingham City striker was given throughout the game by the home supporters. Johnson was back to his best and showed the pace, movement and sharpness in front of goal that has proved so deadly at the top level over the years.
Twenty minutes from time the match was finely balanced with both sides probing for a winner, but it was Villa that took the upper hand with just over 15 minutes remaining. There was little Mark Schwarzer could do to stop Kyle Walker’s right-footed strike from 30 yards. Walker’s hit was true and arrowed into the far corner of the net.
Fulham came back at Villa from the restart and would just not lie down.
And after 78 minutes Dempsey pulled the game level with a headed goal from Damien Duff’s corner. It was the US international’s 10th goal of the season and once again, Fulham had earned their reward.
With ten minutes left the game was poised to go either way. Dempsey epitomised Fulham's fighting spirit and his never-say-die attitude was a credit to the man and his team.
Chris Baird was taking no prisoners either and was certainly not letting Ashley Young passed on 87 minutes. The defender picked up a booking for his efforts but Fulham remained resolute and solid during the final stages.
There was a brief appearance for Eidur Gudjohnsen during the final seconds of four minutes of injury time, with the Icelandic striker coming on for goalscorer Andrew Johnson.
Neither side could grab a late winner and a draw was, on reflection, a fair result. Credit must go to Hughes and his team who fought back on two occasions to take a well earned point back to SW6.