From The Guardian
Images courtesy of Javier Garcia...
Fulham's first win in 10 Premiership matches should be enough to dispel fears of relegation. That it came in a poor game strewn with errors and horrid finishing will be of no consequence to them whatsoever. The result was all that mattered after such a wretched run and the potential consequences of it.
For Leeds United, it meant they will have to be satisfied with a Uefa Cup place next season. Their Champions League hopes disappeared in a disjointed performance lacking any real passion. There were enough chances created, but no one good enough to take them.
Even allowing for the misses - and the absence of leading scorer Mark Viduka - it was difficult to understand this Leeds performance. Energy and enterprise are normally key components of their play, but here those qualities were missing.
Robbie Fowler made his full debut for Liverpool against Fulham as an 18-year-old, played his first match for Leeds at Craven Cottage after an £11 million move last December and yesterday returned to their side against the London club.
Fowler, who made way for Robbie Keane the previous Saturday against Aston Villa, replaced Viduka, who had twisted an ankle in training on Friday. And in the first meaningful move of the game he had the ball in the net from Ian Harte's cross, but the goal was ruled out for a foul by Lee Bowyer on the goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar.
Fulham also had to make a change nine minutes into the game when Luis Boa Morte was replaced by Bjarne Goldbaek after a challenge by Rio Ferdinand, back for Leeds after missing five matches with knee trouble.
Another cross by Harte, this time to the far post, presented Keane with a chance that he miscued yards wide of the opposite upright. It was in-keeping with the first half-hour, which was played at a leisurely pace, despite the result being important to both teams. Ferdinand was grateful to Nigel Martyn's rush from his line to foil Steve Marlet after the Frenchman got goal side of him. Then Louis Saha shot weakly at the goalkeeper from inside the penalty area.
The carelessness continued. Keane, admittedly under pressure from two defenders, screwed his shot wide when advancing on Van der Sar, who was fortunate soon after when the ball fell kindly for his defence after his failure to deal with a centre by Danny Mills.
Fowler headed straight at the goalkeeper when he should have made much better use of Eirik Bakke's cross, and Van der Sar was in the thick of it again when Rufus Brevett went down under the challenge of David Batty, a 40- yard dash to protest resulting in a booking for the Dutchman.
It was clear that something special - or something out of the blue - would be needed to break the deadlock. Enter Steed Malbranque, who fired over a corner from the left and when the ball eventually came back to him he drove it hard and low through a crowd of players and inside the far post.
Fulham's lead was preserved by Van der Sar's excellent point-blank save from Keane.
The Sunday Telegraph
FULHAM DID Leeds proud last week, their FA Cup semi-final defeat by Chelsea guaranteeing David O'Leary's men a place in next season's UEFA Cup.
Yesterday their hosts returned the compliment, wasting a string of opportunities to allow Jean Tigana's side to grab an unlikely victory - their first in 10 games - which almost certainly ensures their Premiership survival.
O'Leary had promised his side would go all out for a top-four place to gatecrash the Champions League, though his players did not seem convinced. Fulham, on the other hand, showed the spirit that has been lacking in the past two months during their freefall from ninth place to the fringe of the relegation zone. A seven-point cushion now brings some welcome breathing space.
Leeds were strengthened by the return of Rio Ferdinand after a five-match absence with a knee injury, enabling Danny Mills to revert to right-back. There was also a recall for Robbie Fowler after Mark Viduka twisted an ankle in training on Friday.
Fulham made only one change from the side who lost to Chelsea with John Collins being replaced by Luis Boa Morte, though the Portuguese midfielder had barely broken sweat before his afternoon was ended.
A crunching but perfectly legal tackle by Ferdinand after only six minutes left him clutching his right knee, forcing the early introduction of substitute Njarne Goldbaek.
Without Viduka's physical presence Leeds struggled to impose themselves early on and it was not until the 20th minute that the home side had a shot in anger, Robbie Keane's 20-yard effort failing to trouble Edwin van der Sar. Two minutes later Fowler had the ball in the net but his effort was disallowed for a foul on the Dutch goalkeeper by Lee Bowyer.
The disciplinary problems that have blackened Leeds' reputation this season were never far from the surface and as a simmering feud between Alan Smith and Rufus Brevett threatened to boil over Bowyer appeared to stamp on Steed Malbranque, though the incident was missed by referee Rob Styles.
The atmosphere was further soured by an ugly challenge on Louis Saha by David Batty right in front of the dug-outs, which Mills compounded by kicking the ball straight at the prostrate striker's face. Van der Sar was so incensed that he ran from his goal to remonstrate, only to be shown the yellow card.
In between such low points, Leeds squandered several chances to take a half-time lead as Keane dragged a shot wide with just Van der Sar to beat and Fowler forced a brilliant save from the Dutchman with a close-range header.
Leeds were made to pay for such wastefulness. Seven minutes into the second half the home defence failed to deal properly with a Malbranque corner. After Alain Goma's attempted shot was blocked by Mills, Malbranque drifted in to pick up the rebound and fire a powerful, low shot past Nigel Martyn from a narrow angle.
For Leeds, the chance of sneaking into next season's Champions' League qualifiers always looked tenuous after a season that has proved disappointing, regardless of extenuating circumstances. This result, combined with Newcastle's thumping of Charlton, finally killed off their hopes of clawing their way up to fourth place in the Premiership.
After winning five of their previous seven matches, Leeds were entitled to anticipate more. But even with Rio Ferdinand back after a month's absence to reinforce the back line, they were beaten by French under-21 international Steed Malbranque's second-half goal, which gave Mohamed Al Fayed's expensively constructed team their first away win since 2 January.
Fulham now have 40 points, normally regarded as the benchmark for Premiership survival. Nothing is guaranteed yet, but it seems unlikely they will be caught, with third-from-bottom Ipswich seven points adrift. "I still think we need 41," their assistant manager, Christian Damiano, said, "but 40 will probably be enough."
Fulham's relief contrasted with the gloom hanging over Leeds, for whom 60 points will be enough only for the Uefa Cup. The Elland Road crowd rounded on their players at the final whistle, dismayed not so much by chances missed as the way in which a patchy performance, riddled with petty fouls, had petered out miserably in the final half-hour.
Their disappointment was not lost on David O'Leary, although the Leeds manager preferred to adopt a more positive view. "After the season we've had, with all the things that have gone on, I have to tell myself that we've salvaged something," he said. "We could be mid-table but we're in the Uefa Cup automatically. A few months ago, I would have been grateful for that."
O'Leary's players' execution did not match their intent. Fulham needed to be on their toes defensively, particularly in the first half and at the start of the second, but the example of Alain Goma ensured that they were and such chances as Leeds had were wasted.
The best fell to Robbie Keane. However, the Irishman's far-post volley after 26 minutes missed by so much that the ball went out for a throw-in. Then, with only Edwin van der Saar to beat, he dragged his shot wide. Robbie Fowler, who was denied a goal by Lee Bowyer's foul on Van der Saar, also had a close-range header saved.
But the hosts' first-half display was undermined by their uglier side. Alan Smith, Bowyer and David Batty were allowed in turn to get away with some X-certificate stuff, as referee Rob Styles took a lenient approach where action was needed.
Fulham had made only a couple of meaningful incursions into Leeds territory, although a delightful one-two played by Louis Saha off Sean Davis was a reminder of their technical gifts. Another came seven minutes into the second half from Malbranque. At the edge of a crowded penalty area, Saha moved the ball out to his left. A shot by Goma was blocked but fell to Malbranque, whose low drive carried too much force for Nigel Martyn and brought him his 10th goal of the season.
Leeds kept Fulham under pressure at first. But after Van der Saar had saved well from Keane and Fowler had blazed high their heads dropped.
AT THE end, the fans' boos filled the air and Leeds United's players walked off the field as if following a hearse. In a sense, they were because the dream of next season's Champions League formally died yesterday. Fulham, on the other hand, guaranteed their Premiership status next season.
What would the coroner's report say about the Leeds team: passed away peacefully after a short illness? That would be kind because Leeds were hardly a team yesterday. Where was the joy, the effervescence that once made them sparkle? Gone. The question now is who will be around when the team starts again? Fulham deserved to win, their first away victory in the Premiership since the turn of the year. They worked hard for what they got and when Steed Malbranque got his chance, he took it well. But do not forget why Fulham had fallen into such a perilous position: they are a nice football team in the same way that the poodle is a nice dog.
Malbranque deserves credit and it was no accident that his strike won the match. Seven minutes of the second half had passed when an Alain Goma shot was blocked and fell to him. Quick as lightning, he struck with his right foot and the speed of the shot beat Nigel Martyn. It wasn't that Leeds didn't search for an equaliser but rather that they didn't know where to look.
Afterwards David O'Leary acknowledged that his team lost a little heart after Malbranque's goal and lamented the absence of the injured Mark Viduka.
"He made a silly challenge in a five-a-side on Friday but that sums up our season," said O'Leary. Sadly, it does not. Leeds' problems run much deeper than unfortunate injuries.
The team have lost their way. From the performances, you now get a sense of internal disenchantment and diminished self-esteem. Some of the players have not progressed and others have gone backwards. Without wingers, yesterday's side was tactically incoherent.
The spirit that once made the team formidable has been eroded and again yesterday too much desire was spent in unhelpful aggression. Lee Bowyer was a particular culprit but there were times, too, when David Batty and Danny Mills were not much better. Nothing demonstrates disharmony as much as indiscipline.
Even Rio Ferdinard, who you expect to soothe and encourage, snarled at Mills after the full-back allowed Luis Boa Morte to slip inside him. It was a bad mistake but Ferdinand's rebuke didn't do much for Mills' spirits. Another tell-tale sign was Robbie Fowler's listlessness. His game depends on sharpness but yesterday he played as if just awoken from a deep sleep. The darting runs that so trouble defenders were absent. Robbie Keane played well, but too often he had to run for two men.
What will gall Leeds fans is that so much more could have been achieved this season. Even yesterday, Leeds still had plenty of chances to beat Fulham. Fowler scrambled the ball across the line in the first half but the goal was disallowed because of Bowyer's foul on Edwin Van der Sar. Then Keane was unlucky when running skilfully through the defence before pulling his shot wide.
Right on half-time Fowler stooped to head at the far post but couldn't get enough power and Van der Sar saved. There were other chances, most notably when Mills crossed for Keane, who evaded Steve Finnan's tackle and laid the ball back for Fowler. He blazed high and over. Fulham were content to funnel back and play Leeds on the break. They did so effectively and Van der Sar didn't have much more to do. Andy Melville and Goma were well protected by Sylvain Legwinski, who did much to stifle Leeds.
Rufus Brevett also did much to annoy them. In the left-back's various skirmishes with Bowyer, Batty and Alan Smith, he was as much sinned against as sinning. From Leeds' point of view, the absurdity is that the usual suspects continue to involve themselves in the usual nonsense.
For the summer, O'Leary could do worse than give his warriors video tapes of Don Revie's team at its best. The old team could and often did physically dominate their rivals. They could, occasionally, be dirty but they were rarely undisciplined. Revie, you see, brought together a fine group of players and moulded them into a great team. So far, O'Leary has only a fine group of players.