Striking issue

Thursday 3 January 2002

Before Horacio Carbonari scored the own goal which secured Fulham's victory last night, manager Jean Tigana could have been forgiven for thinking that the Midas touch he brought to Craven Cottage 18 months ago was beginning to fail him.

Memories of last season's glories when his team won Division One at a canter and Louis Saha, his virtually unknown, £2.1 million signing from Metz, became the leading scorer in England with 32 goals, have been fading fast in recent weeks.

Fulham may have managed to pass their way to mid-table in the Premiership, but scoring goals has become a persistent problem and with the league as competitive as ever the prospect of dropping into the relegation places has been causing growing concern.

Tigana had seen it coming last summer but could do little to prevent it as he tried and failed to buy strikers such as Czech international Jan Koller, who decided to move to Borussia Dortmund from Anderlecht and Freddie Kanoute of West Ham.

Then Tigana paid Lyon £11.5m for Steve Marlet only for the French international to fracture a leg after just seven appearances.

Striker Andy Cole's wage demands meant that he left Manchester United for Blackburn rather than Fulham last week and Tigana had to do without Lee Clark, Sylvain Legwinski and Luis Boa Morte in midfield last night because of injuries.

"I think Cole was interested in coming to Fulham but the contract was too important," said assistant manager Christian Damiano.

"Our defence is very good but up front is a weak point for us and we need more power in the penalty box. The difference with teams like Manchester United is that they have three good chances and they score three goals.

"We are always looking at bringing in new players but they have to be right for the team and not upset the balance we have. The deal also has to be right and it is not easy."

Critics will claim the signing of 27-year-old Marlet is proof of how difficult it can be, particularly after he managed to force only one good save from Derby's Mart Poom despite four decent scoring chances last night.

Fulham supporters are well aware that the free-scoring Robbie Fowler cost almost the same amount as the Frenchman when he moved from Liverpool to Leeds last month.

Marlet has scored just one goal for the club in half a season, but Damiano said: "I know what people's expectations are but he has been injured and I think he will prove some people wrong.

"He is expensive now because he has not played but when he is scoring and playing well things will be different. He is a creative player, who likes to shoot and has a good eye for goal.

"He jumps very well for headers and he is not afraid of big or aggressive defenders.

"He will be a very important player for us in the future but he will not be properly fit for another four or five games. After that he will be in very good form."

Last night was only Marlet's second appearance since returning from injury and he produced some intelligent passing when he dropped deep.

Tigana made him his first-choice striker in a new formation forced at least in part by injuries.

Defender Zat Knight was given a role in front of the back four and John Collins and Sean Davis played either side of midfield with the impressive Steed Malbranque in front of them.

"We played a different system and the idea was to give us a solid foundation. It also keeps the team fresh to play in a different way," Damiano said.

The formation also reduced the width Fulham played with, put the onus on Derby to attack them and made for an open game.

Tigana's team concentrated on counter-attacking but their lack of familiarity with their system meant they did not have as much possession as usual.

Their goal came from a quick break down the right in the 73rd minute. Derby's unlucky Carbonari put the ball into his own net as he tried to cut out a low Steve Finnan cross at the near post with substitute Louis Saha lurking behind him.

That goal proved enough for victory although Fulham goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar may have been a little lucky that referee Barry Knight did not give a penalty for his last-minute challenge on Malcolm Christie.

Midfielder Collins added: "It was not pretty but it was getting a bit tight behind us in the league and now we can start looking at the teams above us instead. The squad may be stretched a little bit but that means other players get the chance to come in and try to prove themselves."

If they bring Tigana the sort of luck him and his team benefited from last night, no one at Fulham will be complaining.