Fulham moved one step closer to the 40 point mark with a draw in Wolverhampton on Easter Saturday in a full throttle encounter that provided plenty of action.
From the blazing sunshine and warm temperatures, the afternoon almost had the feel of a pre-season friendly as supporters of both clubs made their way to the ground in short sleeves, but once the first whistle blew, it became clear that there was much more at stake than gaining a bit of match fitness.
Sitting at the foot of the Premier League table, Wolves knew that nothing less than three points would do from the first of just three remaining home games, as they desperately try to retain their top-flight status.
Six points better off, on 38, the Whites were aware that one more win would likely secure an 11th consecutive season in England’s top division, and make a positive step toward the aim of a top 10 finish. There was a lot to play for, and it showed, in a game that began at a 100 miles per hour and continued that way.
Fulham pushed forward from the off and threatened to score twice in the opening minutes. Attacking down the right, Simon Davies played a low cross from the edge of the penalty area to the opposite side of the box, where Carlos Salcido had the time to set the ball before unleashing a stinging right-footed drive, which Wayne Hennessy had to stretch full length across his goal to tip over the bar.
From the resulting corner Brede Hangeland found the space at the back post to head the ball back across the goal, but in a goalmouth scramble, Wolves managed to clear to safety.
Davies, returning to the side after missing a few games through injury, was lively in the early exchanges and looked a likely source of joy for the Whites. Another returning to the line-up was Steve Sidwell, and some purposeful running from him just after the quarter of an hour fashioned a half-chance for Dempsey on the left of the box, but the US star couldn’t get his shot low enough and it fizzed over.
Seconds later came the talking point of the first-half, as Wolves’ Richard Stearman made a dangerous, two-footed challenge on Eidur Gudjohnsen. Fortunately for the Fulham man, he was able to evade the defender’s flying studs. Luckier still was Stearman who escaped with only a yellow card for what could easily have warranted a harsher punishment.
And Wolves had a let-off of another kind moments later as Dempsey spurned a golden opportunity to put Fulham ahead. Sidwell sprayed the ball wide left to Salcido who played a perfect, first-time ball to the edge of the six-yard box where Clint was sliding in. But he couldn’t control his effort, knocking the ball over the bar without troubling Hennessey.
As their formation suggested, the hosts were set up to attempt to soak up Fulham pressure and hit on the break. And that’s exactly what they did on 21 minutes. After winning a corner from nothing, the danger was half-cleared from the resultant set piece, but the home side came again. Guedioura knocked the ball wide to the right where Karl Henry was waiting to deliver a tempting cross that hung in the air just perfectly for Steven Fletcher who managed to get above Aaron Hughes and head past Schwarzer to send the home fans into raptures.
With the goal they so desperately needed in the bag, Wolves visibly settled a little, though the game did not, switching from end-to-end. In Fulham’s attack, Sidwell tried a cute chipped pass over the defence, but Dempsey couldn’t quite reach it, and at the other end Guedioura and O’Hara saw wild, speculative efforts fly over either side of a Schwarzer save from a Jarvis corner.
After a quiet 15 minutes or so, Fulham crafted a great chance in the closing moments of the half. Some Dembele skill in the middle opened up the space into which he was able to play a low pass to Gudjohnsen. With his back to goal, the Icelander held off his man until Dempsey ran through. He shaped to shoot, and only a late intervention from a back-tracking defender prevented a clean shot – instead the ball rolling out for a corner.
At the other end, O’Hara threatened to double Wolves’ lead, receiving the ball in the box and swivelling to shoot at goal. Hangeland made a desperate dive to block his effort, but the shot drilled wide anyway.
Then the last chance of the half came from Dempsey again. After some more midfield battling, Sidwell and Murphy dispossessed Henry and fed Clint, who fired across goal, but off-target.
Both sides were unchanged as they emerged for the second-half, and the flow of play continued much the same too, the first chance coming Fulham’s way. Hennessey fumbled a low cross and Dembele was well-placed to capitalise. However, it didn’t quite fall for the Fulham man, and Wolves were able to scrap it away.
At the other end Schwarzer then had to be alert to deny a long-range effort from O’Hara. The midfielder’s powerful low shot requiring a full-stretch, low save to the right.
Taking on much of the same end-to-end rhythm of the first half, Gudjohnsen then threatened for Fulham. Picking up a loose ball on the edge of the area, he dribbled across the Wolves defence, before bursting into the box. Unfortunately, he maybe took one too many touches, pushing the ball too wide to allow a clear strike at goal, and his eventual effort from wide failed to threaten, flying over instead.
Also consistent from the first-half was an undercurrent of animosity, and tempers flared again 15 minutes into the second period. Brede Hangeland was booked for what appeared to be a fair challenge on Fletcher, and Mark Hughes was not afraid to show how he felt about the decision. Referee Mike Oliver felt the need to send the Fulham boss to the stands to cool down.
Fulham were still enjoying the better of the chances though, and the particularly outstanding Gudjohnsen laid another inviting ball to Dempsey on the edge of the area, but unfortunately again the US Star couldn’t connect properly, his shot bobbling just wide of the right post. Moments later Sidwell had a powerful low drive from outside of the area saved by Hennessey, despite a deflection.
Sensing the game was still there to be taken, Fulham made two changes on 70 minutes. Bobby Zamora and Gael Kakuta were introduced in place of Eidur Gudjohnsen and Danny Murphy.
And both men were soon in the action, Kakuta creating a chance out of nothing from the right, as he advanced forward into a shooting position before firing in a low shot, which Hennessey easily saved. Then at the other end, Zamora was in the right place at the right time to prevent a goalbound effort from a corner, calmly chesting the ball down before clearing to safety to keep Fulham in the game.
Soon after Schwarzer had to save again to deny a deflected shot from Fletcher, the goal scorer’s last piece of action, before being replaced by Sylvan Ebanks-Blake.
With 12 minutes remaining Fulham then made a third substitution, Andrew Johnson being introduced in place of Clint Dempsey. And the change paid immediate dividends.
A high ball into the box found Zamora who got a foot to it, laying it back to where Johnson was waiting. The striker took one touch before firing straight into the middle of the goal, the out of position Hennessey only able to get a slight touch as it flew in, and Johnson ran to the other end of the pitch to celebrate his first goal since February with the travelling support.
It was a more than deserved equaliser, but the Whites weren’t satisfied with a point as they continued to press.
As the game moved into injury time, the lively Kakuta showed Fulham were still looking for the win, forcing a fine save with a powerful shot from the right. Zamora headed the resultant deflection across the goal, and it eventually fell to Kakuta again, but this time his shot flew across the face of goal and out for a goal kick.
It was the last real chance on an afternoon of much action, as Wolves held on for a barely warranted, but valuable point.