From Daniel Crawford
FULHAM'S quiet march to the latter stages of the FA Cup gathered pace at the Bescot Stadium today despite a plucky performance from Walsall, who refused to roll over and die, despite being outplayed and outpassed for much of the first period. Once again, it seemed that Fulham's inability to convert posession into goals would cost them dear, but their leading scorer Barry Hayles produced a moment of magic that emphasised their Premiership quality.
Hayles settled the tie on the hour mark when he acrobatically volleyed a deep cross from Steve Finnan's cross into the corner. The ball seemed to be dropping behind Hayles, but he conjured up memories of Darrius Vassell's spectacular strike past Edwin van der Sar in midweek with an unstoppable scissors-kick. It was the Jamaican international's first goal away from Craven Cottage this season and his eleventh in all.
Hayles' finish was all the more appropriate with Vassell occupying a seat in the main stand as a guest of Darren Byfield. The two are best mates despite the fact that Byfield's release from his contract at Aston Villa owed much to Vassell's emergence and Byfield expressed his desire to "make it a double celebration" when he met up with his former team-mate after the game. He nearly did after bundling van der Sar's indecesive punch into the Fulham net to level matters shortly after the interval. "When they came back to
equalise I was a little bit worried," admitted Jean Tigana, the Fulham manager.
After their equaliser, Walsall could have snatched the lead. Byfield, who was a lively presence up front all afternoon, almost turned in a Dean Keates corner and the home supporters were convinced that Steve Finnan handled Jorge Leitao's powerful drive, although the referee Steve Dunn deemed that it was a case of ball to hand rather than hand to ball. In the closing minutes, Byfield was denied an equaliser when van der Sar brilliantly clawed away his goalbound header to more than make amends for his earlier mistake.
The home side were unable to secure the replay that they would have liked, but manager Colin Lee insists their "main priority is to stay in the First Division". If they could transfer the form they have produced this season in the Cup, then that would not be a problem. However, after the euphoria of his first game - a 2-1 victory at Charlton in round four - Lee realised the scale of his task with a three-goal defeat at the hands of fellow relegation strugglers Sheffield Wednesday. Now, he has to rouse his side from this
defeat and rescue their season.
Fulham would have been disappointed had they not won this game, especially given the biazarre way that they took a deserved lead two minutes before the break. Their incisive and flowing football had merited a goal, but Steed Malbranque missed the best opportunity of the game when his point blank header flashed across the face of goal. Steve Finnan was also unable to convert a similarly guilt-edged opportunity when Hayles' deflected shot fell at his feet some seven yards out.
Tigana's side finally got the breakthrough just when the Frenchman would have been composing a colourful half-time team talk. Malbranque's free-kick caused confusion in the Walsall box, as Tom Bennett and Matt Carbon got in each other's way as they tried to prevent Hayles from opening the scoring.
Then, almost in slow motion, Bennett's attempted clearance squeezed between goalkeeper Jimmy Walker and the near post and trickled agonisingly over the
The last time Fulham reached the quarter-finals of this competition was in 1975 and then they went on to reach the Cup final for the only time in the club's history, when Peter Mellor's porous hands helped West Ham to a 2-0 success. With the holders and the Premiership champions already out, what chance price of history repeating itself and a trip to Cardiff for Tigana's team? "The FA Cup is always a difficult competition to win because there is so much passion in the games," said the Frenchman. "My priority is to stay at the top level and play teams like Manchester United and Chelsea. But if we can go all the way in the competition, why not?"