A second-half goal by Louis Saha on his first return to St James' Park since a brief loan spell with Newcastle three years ago earned Fulham a crucial point in their fight against relegation last night. A draw was sufficient for Newcastle to regain the coveted fourth place in the Premiership from Chelsea, keeping them in pole position to win the last Champions' League slot, but a lack of consistent sparkle will not have pleased supporters hoping for an more emphatic end to the campaign.
Kieron Dyer's return to fitness continues, as demonstrated by his first-half goal, and that will welcome further afield than Tyneside. But the wait for Alan Shearer's historic 200th Premiership goal will continue a little longer. As will the nagging doubts about whether Bobby Robson's side have the consistency to hold on for a place among Europe's élite next season.
"I am disappointed, obviously," Robson said afterwards. "I think it is two points dropped. We did well against a well organised unit in the first half but the second-half was poor.
"Did we give the ball away too cheaply at times? We did. We didn't defend the fringes, especially for their goal. But it is not all doom and gloom. We need the fans to stay with us. And we can still make the Champions' League, that is my message."
Robson's counterpart, Jean Tigana, said he was pleased with a point, not least after eight games where Fulham had taken just one from a possible 24. "We needed to get back some confidence," he said. "Especially as we have a fantastic game [the FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea] on Sunday."
It was Newcastle who started last night with the greater composure, epitomised by Robbie Elliott at left-back, making a first start since being dropped in February. His ease on the ball and willingness to press forward exuded confidence, while a couple of timely early interventions by his fellow defender Sylvain Distin on the speedy Saha showed it ran through the team, starting at the back.
With the home midfield showing flashes, however brief, of their devastating capabilities going forward that saw Everton thrashed 6-2 last month, it was only a matter of time before they went ahead. Gary Speed, returning after five games out, put just too much pace on one defence-dissecting pass to Dyer. Nolberto Solano then whipped in a cross although the target striker was Carl Cort, offside. And then on, 21 minutes, after a header forward from Elliott, came the breakthrough.
Dyer surely a certainty to make England's first-choice World Cup team, fitness permitting darted like the proverbial dog from a trap, wrong-footed Edwin Van Der Sar and poked home into the bottom right hand corner. The closest Fulham came to scoring in the opening period was when Saha broke free in the box but Shay Given dived at his feet and smothered.
The visitors had a fair share of the possession, with which they occasionally played the neat, effective passing game that saw them rise from the First Division a year ago. But a lack of ability to maintain that possession at crucial times, allied with an in-form opposition goalkeeper when they did, saw many forays end in frustration. Sylvain Legwinksi and Steed Malbranque both saw the ball nicked from their feet in space. Saha also saw Given thwart him again after a successful run into the box.
Fulham eventually got back on terms 13 minutes from time. A corner led to a Sean Davis shot, which was turned in, virtually on the line, by Saha.
From the Telegraph
NEWCASTLE'S grip on the coveted prize of the fourth Champions League place was loosened by a battling Fulham last night and they will have to perform better than this in their remaining five fixtures if they are to avoid the disappointment of seeing either Chelsea or Leeds United deprive them of the honour of competing in Europe's premier competition.
They were lucky to be ahead at the interval through a Kieron Dyer goal against the run of play and they could have no complaints when Louis Saha plundered a close-range equaliser against his former club 13 minutes from the end of a confrontation which rarely rose above the mediocre.
The well-deserved point pleased Fulham as much as it deflated Newcastle. Jean Tigana's team are in wretched run of form and this result gives them greater security against the increasingly unlikely possibility of Derby County or Ipswich Town climbing out of the relegation zone.
Newcastle had not posed a semblance of a threat when midway through a disappointing first half they snatched the lead through Dyer's second goal of an injury-curtailed season.
The England midfielder's persistence in a tight duel produced a fortunate bounce of the loose ball in his favour and he needed no invitation to outpace the covering Andy Melville in a race into the penalty area from where he calmly side-footed past the helpless Edwin Van der Sar.
The home team's only other attacks during that period resulted in Nolberto Solano putting the ball in the net only to be recalled for a foul by Alan Shearer and a Solano free-kick which seemed destined for the head of Shearer until Van der Sar made a punched clearance.
Fulham bore no resemblance to a team in freefall. Their miserable record of only a single point from their previous eight outings was put to the back of their minds as they frequently worried opponents with lofty ambitions.
Casual Newcastle defending almost presented Steve Marlet with a swift equaliser to Dyer's shock opener. The French striker burst through the static central defence of Andy O'Brien and Silvain Distin and was all set to cash in when Shay Given demonstrated his Republic of Ireland international credentials with a perfectly-timed advance to steal the ball from the striker's feet.
Given was also well placed to deal with a first-time effort from Marlet who had been cleverly located inside the penalty area by Steed Malbranque, but the Newcastle goalkeeper might have been struggling if a volley by Silvain Legwinski had been more accurate.
Newcastle began the second half much more encouragingly and after Shearer's refusal to give up a lost cause had led to Solano winning a corner down the right flank, Carl Cort was only inches away from extending their advantage from the Peruvian winger's centre.
Shearer was then instrumental in Cort earning another corner, this time from the left, and when Laurent Robert sent it looping over, the crowd held their breath as the idol of Tyneside won a header but could not keep it below Van der Sar's crossbar.
Another Newcastle near miss came when Robert saw a speculative effort from long range take a wicked deflection away from Van der Sar and float just wide.
Robert chanced his arm again with a curling free-kick following a foul on O'Brien near the touchline but the angle was too tight for the Frenchman to worry a goalkeeper of Van der Sar's quality.
Fulham continued to look dangerous, however, and were thwarted by Given yet again when the pace of Saha took him away from the challenge of O'Brien. Again the timing of Given's advance from his line was crucial as he saved well at the feet of the striker.
The visitors refused to accept that this was a home banker and were eventually rewarded for their perseverance when Saha diverted a Sean Davis shot into the Newcastle net after a Malbranque corner was only half cleared.
Dyer was sent sprawling in the area with five minutes to go but referee Alan Wiley waved aside sustained appeals for a penalty
Barry Hayles will discover today whether he will miss Sunday's FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea and a possible appearance in the final when the Fulham striker appears before a Football Association disciplinary commission to answer two charges of violent conduct.
The games were against West Ham on Nov 3 and against Everton on Dec 8 involving incidents with Hayden Foxe and David Weir respectively.
From the Guardian
These two are reaching the end of the season the way What's Up Boys reached the Canal Turn at Aintree on Saturday: wearily and with others on their shoulder.
Newcastle United may yet finish the season in the equine style of Devon Loch, having won only one of their past eight games and seeing their Champions League prospects drifting away. Fulham's recent record is even worse, one win in 13, but whipped on by Louis Saha the west Londoners found one last surge of energy
Saha's 77th-minute equaliser may prove to be enough to keep Jean Tigana's side on their Premiership feet. The point, only their second from the last 27, took them four clear of Ipswich and that could be a decisive margin come May 11. The following day Bobby Robson attends a function at Craven Cottage boldy billed as a demolition party and Fulham will not want to be staging it in the ruins of a relegation season
Tigana is cautiously optimistic. "A lot depends on Ipswich's performances," he said. "People say the point tonight might be enough, but Ipswich could win their next four games. We must look after ourselves." He was rightly pleased with the way his side played. In a poor game Fulham passed the ball more cleanly than their hosts and with greater imagination
Only the continued good form of Shay Given had prevented Saha scoring on two previous occasions, but when Sean Davis volleyed a Steed Malbranque corner back across goal both Given and Saha were beaten by the ball's pace. Luckily for Saha and Fulham the shot hit the Frenchman and Fulham had their draw
The former Newcastle striker - Saha was on Tyneside for five months under the management of Ruud Gullit three seasons ago - thereby upstaged two Newcastle opponents who should have made the night their own
Alan Shearer is still awaiting his record-breaking 200th Premiership goal but had the barest whiff of a chance in the 10th minute and nothing else. He was again partnered by Carl Cort in the absence, for an eighth game, of Craig Bellamy, and Cort had as bad a match as it was possible to have
He was not alone and Newcastle as a result were as poor as at any time this season. Only Given, Nolberto Solano and Kieron Dyer emerged with any credit. Dyer, with a first England start for Sven-Goran Eriksson due next Wednesday against Paraguay, seemed to have arrested the early torpor with his first goal since January in the 21st minute
Newcastle had already been conspicuously lethargic but then Dyer ran on to a Laurent Robert header and benefited from a ricochet off Andy Melville. Sprinting into the Fulham area, Dyer showed admirable composure to beat Edwin van der Sar at the far post
Newcastle should have taken confidence from that but instead it was Fulham who pushed on. Sylvain Legwinski missed a decent opportunity and it seemed that Fulham's familiar failing was going to scupper them again. "Thirty-one goals before tonight just isn't enough," Tigana said
But Saha battled on as Newcastle subsided in a welter of misplaced passes. The crowd's lack of noise was replaced by groans and their fears became dismay when Saha scored. The crowd then turned and Newcastle were booed off
"I think they forget how well we've done," said Robson. "My message is we can still do it. They have such expectations and want it so much. But we need encouragement, we need them to stay with us
"We're a point ahead of Chelsea with a game in hand so it's not all doom and gloom. I said to the players at half-time, 'Can we win this 1-0 like Liverpool or Arsenal?' That wasn't our ambition but it's the mark of a good team. But we didn't defend the corner and the ball went straight to Davis." And from there to Saha.
From the Sun
THEY came to worship former England hero Alan Shearer but left cursing former Geordies loan star Louis Saha.
Fulham striker Saha, brought to St James' from Metz by Ruud Gullit during his disastrous year-long reign on Tyneside, produced a brilliant show and deserved his lucky late equaliser.
He turned in a show of pace and directness as if to punish a club which felt he was not worth a £2.5million fee.
At the end of the 1999 campaign he was allowed to go back to his French club.
Now his goal could yet cost the Magpies a great deal more.
Saha simply moved into another gear after the interval to give Andy O'Brien a torrid time.
And even though his equaliser late on went in off the French star's right knee from Sean Davis' shot, it will not do his confidence any harm.
Fulham manager Jean Tigana said: "Louis is a good player but he needs to get his head right. He has a big quality."
Of his team's performance, the Frenchman added: "I believe we will be safe if we get four more points but this one may be enough. You never know.
"It was a good and important point. We played the same way at West Ham but our problem is scoring goals.
"This will help bring our confidence back, especially with Sunday's FA Cup semi-final to come.
"I am not bothered that this result might help our opponents' Chelsea's chances of the Champions' League. All that matters to me is that this result helps us."
Newcastle had led by a 21st-minute strike from Kieron Dyer but this lead had always flattered Bobby Robson's men.
In fact, but for keeper Shay Given, Fulham could have won.
The real hero was United's Republic of Ireland keeper who took the eye with an outstanding show.
He made three timely saves, which all came either side of the half-time whistle.
Throughout the game all eyes were on Toon No9 Shearer.
The former England skipper was on 199 Premiership goals and was looking to be the first to reach 200 against the side he missed a penalty against earlier in the campaign.
However, the service to Shearer was so poor that he rarely got a sniff at goal, never mind bothering the statisticians.
Shearer is an amazing 60 goals ahead of his closest rival Andy Cole and wanted this latest milestone out of the way without any fuss. There was no hope of that in front of more than 50,000 fellow Geordies.
Neither was there any hope of this on a night when there were few stars in the black-and-white striped shirts.
However, Shearer remained typically upbeat. He said: "We are still in pole position for that fourth spot and Champions League qualification at the end of the season.
"We are now a point ahead of Chelsea with a game in hand - I just hope we do not throw it all away."
Fulham went into the game with just one point from their last 24 but after a superb show from their midfield they were always the side showing the more confidence on the ball.
The crowd were already up celebrating in the 10th minute when Shearer rose to meet a Nobby Solano cross.
However, defender Alain Goma did enough in his physical challenge to take the sting out of the header.
The tension that had been building evaporated in the time it took Dyer to beat Andy Melville, waltz into the box and then draw Edwin van der Sar before beating the Dutch international inside his far post with a dinked effort from 10 yards in the 21st minute.
Fulham should have been level within four minutes.
Saha broke free but, when he attempted to round Given - one of the Geordies' contenders for Player of the Season - the keeper flung out his right hand to block and then collect.
Almost inevitably, Saha and Fulham got the break that their display fully deserved.
An interested spectator was Chelsea boss Claudio Ranieri.
He was running the rule over Sunday's FA Cup semi-final opponents Fulham and Newcastle's French winger Laurent Robert.
He must have gone away impressed by that other French ace, Saha.
THEY had come in their thousands to revel in the glory of Alan Shearer but as St James' Park emptied last night, the name of a bit-part player signed on loan by Ruud Gullit for Newcastle United three years ago - when the great man had unaccountably fallen out of favour - was being cursed to the echo. Shearer's 200th goal in the Premiership will have to wait; dreams of Europe must also be put on hold.
An insipid draw was enough to lift Newcastle back above Chelsea, whose head coach, Claudio Ranieri, was an interested spectator, but against a Fulham side bereft of form and self-confidence, it did not represent an effective use of a game in hand. In his 11 matches for Newcastle back in 1999, Louis Saha managed to score just once on Tyneside and by doubling his tally with a soft late goal, he shattered a few hearts.
The worth could be incalculable because although the suicidal tendencies of Derby County and Ipswich Town may yet prove their salvation, this was Fulham and their manager drawing a line in the sand. "Four more points would probably be enough to stay up," Jean Tigana said, "but it all depends on Ipswich. We have to look after ourselves and we have to keep playing the way we have." Credit to Tigana: they have never resorted to rudimentary tactics.
Fulham will face Chelsea in the semi-finals of the FA Cup on Sunday in better fettle than their recent record of two points from a possible 27 would suggest. It was a result that, at the least, they deserved, but a limited and disappointing performance from Bobby Robson's players was the memory that lingered. At the final whistle, a chorus of jeers cut through the air.
That, in spite of the hurt, was inexcusable. "We need encouragement," Robson said. "We need the fans to stay with us. People shouldn't forget how well we've done this season, that we need a team in the stands as well as on the pitch. My message to the supporters is that we've still got a great chance."
Newcastle did not resemble a side that had been pressing for the title, who are now banking on an appearance in the Champions League. Above all else, they looked tired. Apart from Shay Given, who saved repeatedly at the feet of Saha, and Kieron Dyer, who opened the scoring, their players were disengaged and rusty. Holding off the challenge of Chelsea and Leeds United will take more than they offered here.
"We're still in pole position," Shearer said, but having left the starting grid with engines revving, Newcastle stalled with the chequered flag in sight. "A brilliant team would have won that game 1-0," Robson said, "but we conceded poorly, lost the ball consistently and Fulham came at us."
The opening 20 minutes had been the opposite, with Fulham caressing the ball without much intent and Newcastle's pressure undermined by wasted passes. Dyer cut through the flab, striding on to the ball when a stooping header from Laurent Robert rebounded off Andy Melville just outside the penalty area and picking his way through a static defence. His shot was diverted in via the outstretched leg of Edwin van der Sar.
In the continued absence of Craig Bellamy, Dyer's change of pace was a useful asset and one that Fulham emulated. Saha was used in similar fashion, frequently being given possession close to the halfway line to run at the centre halves. Although their hesitancy in front of goal was palpable, the warning signs were there.
By that stage, fluency had been forsaken. Newcastle had been a sporadic force, undermined by the low quality of their work on the flanks and their inability to convert the threat promised by their forwards. Shearer has seldom been starved of service as much as this.
Given the generosity of their side at the back, the prevailing unease of the fans was understandable. The calendar year has brought Newcastle just two clean sheets in league football and the demotion of Nikos Dabizas to the substitutes spoke volumes about their uncertainty.
The introduction of Jermaine Jenas, a midfield player, for an off-key Carl Cort was an indication of that. Cort should have scored in the 51st minute when he met a corner from Nolberto Solano with a firm header that sailed above the crossbar, and a wicked, trademark shot from Robert took a wild deflection that bamboozled Van der Sar but bounced wide of the right post.
Once again, Robson was to be thankful for the alert Given, who continued to ambush Saha inside the area, but Newcastle's desperation was increasing. By contrast, Fulham stuck to their task and although their 76th-minute equaliser was fortuitous - a shot by Sean Davis striking Saha's knee - it was merited. "Scoring has been a collective problem for us, but this was a good point," Tigana said, "and very important."