What the papers say

Monday 11 March 2002

The Guardian

After so many dormant years, it is perhaps no surprise that West Bromwich Albion retain a nostalgic fondness for more prosperous days. A taped commentary of Jeff Astle scoring the extra-time winner in the 1968 FA Cup final was played before kick-off last night, but ultimately the romantic notion of this old club going on to emulate that success was extinguished here, as it has so often before.

Instead Fulham, a club with sentimental tendencies of their own, deserve the place in the semi-finals that Steve Marlet's goal at the outset of the second half secured. Having triumphed 1-0 on 14 occasions this season, West Brom were given a taste of their own medicine and, quite frankly, they would have found it unpalatable.

On a historical level, of course, West Brom had a sound argument for being Fulham's superiors in this competition. The memories are beginning to fade, but the corridors here at the Hawthorns are lined with black and white photographs from the 10 finals they have reached, emerging victorious on five occasions.

In stark contrast, Fulham's solitary appearance in the final came in 1975, when Mohamed Al Fayed might have confused a football for a melon and Bobby Moore's talismanic influence was unable to prevent a 2-0 defeat against his former employers West Ham.

Fulham's achievements in the FA Cup since then could be written on the back of a half-time lottery ticket, and West Brom had not navigated a passage to the semi-finals for 20 years. In other words, both clubs have recruited a greater number of famous fans than famous Cup moments over the last two decades.

Fulham have loftier ambitions these days. Calm and cultured, they swiftly emphasised the gulf in status with their elaborate patterns, operating under the Tigana philosophy that surrendering possession should be perceived as a sin. Yet it was to the immense credit of the home side that, even in those long queasy spells when their opponents clearly belonged to a different tier, they seldom seemed afflicted by any kind of inferiority complex.

The irony was that, for all of Fulham's showboating, West Brom's more direct, rigid style of play seemed equally capable of troubling the opposition defence. Megson's players will, indeed, reflect on possibly the finest chance of a frantic opening period when Edwin van der Sar dithered at a Neil Clement corner and the imposing figure of Danny Dichio directed a downward header goalwards only for it to be cleared off the line by John Collins.

Van der Sar was otherwise untroubled in the first half although, given how much time Fulham spent cherishing the ball, it was typical of the side's frugality this season that Russell Hoult did not have a save to make until the 44th minute, when Luis Boa Morte teed up Louis Saha for a powerful volley that was blocked by the goalkeeper's feet.

It was to Megson's great distress, therefore, that within 60 seconds of the restart his players had surrendered parity, particularly to such a bread-and-butter set-play.

After harrying the Fulham forwards to such effect throughout the opening exchanges, the West Brom defenders went absent without leave. Steed Malbranque, the catalyst behind so many of Fulham's more incisive thrusts, swung over a free-kick from the left and Marlet's header, totally unchallenged, was crisp and accurate.

Had Saha retained a modicum of composure a minute later after Malbranque and Steve Finnan had combined to fashion a simple opportunity, the damage to West Brom could have been irreparable.

Slowly but surely, however, the hosts began to emerge as an attacking force. Bob Taylor's 53rd-minute introduction invigorated the home team and their supporters, and Van der Sar had to be alert to claw away the striker's effort soon afterwards.

Van der Sar looked hesitant when dealing with crosses all evening, but Fulham were worthy winners. For Albion, the talk will remain of the past rather than the present.

Sporting Telegraph

THE FA Cup quarter-finals did not save their best until last. The fourth of the weekend's ties was hardly top-of-the-bill stuff though Fulham will not care about such matters as Steve Marlet's second-half goal earned them a place in the last four.

One lapse of concentration in defence cost West Brom dearly but the First Division club will have the ample consolation of entertaining Fulham again next season if they capitalise on their League position and win promotion.

Fulham arrived in the wake of four consecutive defeats and while they have hardly set the Premiership alight Jean Tigana's well-drilled side deserve praise for the way they have consolidated their position in their first season among English football's elite.

They now stand one victory from the FA Cup final after withstanding a late onslaught from the `Baggies', whose confidence had been boosted by winning 10 of their previous 14 matches.

It was a typical Fulham display, giving little away and pouncing on one of the few goal-scoring opportunities that came their way.

Purists may shake their heads at the sight of only one English player, Rufus Brevett, in Fulham's starting line-up but Tigana's multi-national team may yet give their colourful chairman Mohamed Fayed a day in football's limelight at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff in May.

The emotions of the managers on the touchline could hardly have been more contrasting.

While Albion's animated Gary Megson lived every kick, header and tackle as he prowled the technical area, Tigana barely moved, his emotions betraying nothing as he sucked on his trademark toothpick.

In fairness to Tigana there was little to get excited about, especially during a first half high on pace and power but low on precision and product.

Fulham, with no natural width, inevitably followed the ball into the centre which meant much of the game was played in a crowded midfield.

There was much huff and puff though the football was hardly breathtaking. The ball was given away with frustrating frequency so play became disjointed with little pattern or rhythm and there were just two goalworthy attempts in the first 45 minutes.

In the ninth minute John Collins cleared Daniele Dichio's header off the line following a corner from the right. Then a minute before the interval Luis Boa Morte squared the ball from the left and Louis Saha's well-struck low shot from 10 yards was superbly saved by Russell Hoult.

The only other incident of note came when Dichio put Scott Dobie clear but the striker's left-foot effort was so weak it was more like a pass-back than a shot.

But just 100 seconds into the second half Fulham scored with a goal that betrayed Albion's outstanding defensive record of 22 clean sheets this season, which equals the club record.

Marlet was unmarked as he met Collins' free-kick from the left and the Frenchman's near-post header gave Hoult no chance of saving. A local radio reporter had earlier described the noise at the Hawthorns as "literally deafening", but now there was stunned silence.

Injuries have interrupted Marlet's career in English football since his £11.5-million transfer from Lyons last summer but this was a seventh goal in 22 appearances so the club record investment is slowly but surely beginning to pay dividends.

Megson brought on striker Bob Taylor for midfielder Adam Chambers and within four minutes the substitute had almost embarrassed Edwin van der Sar with a bouncing shot from 25 yards which the Dutchman saved at the second attempt.

Albion increased the tempo and piled on the pressure. Tigana sent on Abdes Ouaddou for Boa Morte to numerically strengthen the Fulham defence.

The home team's finishing tended to be more frantic than finesse and Fulham - with 12 clean sheets in the Premiership this season - were not really troubled despite being on the back foot.

The Times

ICONS of the past had played such a significant part in the preparations for this FA Cup encounter, but when the reality of the present dawned at The Hawthorns last night, it was the FA Barclaycard Premiership class of Fulham that prevailed in this quarter-final game.

If it had been a long haul for the ladies on Mothering Sunday having to endure saturation coverage of the three ties, it was a far from easy ride for neutrals as West Bromwich Albion failed to reach their twentieth semi-final in the last of the matches played yesterday.

The scoreline of 1-0 against the Albion bucked the trend for the home side, who have won 14 times this season by that margin. However, it succinctly reflected what was a fast and furious but ultimately disjointed contest. It is fair to say that it was not a classic that ushered Fulham a step closer to what would be only their second Cup Final appearance. Only Chelsea, who were drawn against them in the semi-final draw last night, stand in their way.

Ticket touts should be able to report brisk trade along the King's Road in the weeks before April 14.

The last time Fulham went one stage better in the competition was when the London side were led out at Wembley Stadium by Bobby Moore, although his presence could not prevent West Ham United from securing a 2-0 victory.

This encounter with West Bromwich reprised the roles of that day - an aspiring side from the old second division against top-flight opponents - and the result last night was similarly deserved by virtue of Fulham having the more accomplished players.

"We may never get a better chance to get to a Cup Final than this," John Collins, the Fulham midfield player, said. "We knew they would be a danger and they really came at us, so we are delighted to get through."

The victory was a triumph for Steve Marlet, the £11.5 million summer signing from Lyons who is still striving to vindicate that club-record investment. His seventh goal of the season is certain to silence some of his detractors, if only temporarily. His last three have been scored in cup competition. Fittingly, his chance was created by Steed Malbranque, his compatriot and by some distance the most influential player amid the midfield maelstrom that is endemic in these cup games.

Malbranque's Gallic guile led pockets of resistance as Albion attempted to lay siege to the Fulham defence, either down the right flank, since Neil Clement was almost utterly redundant on the left, or in the air, where Daniele Dichio's imposing figure loomed at every set-piece.

Ironically, it was the deftest of touches at a dead-ball situation, a cleverly flighted free kick from the left by Malbranque less than two mintues after the interval, that secured a sixth-round passage. It was an invitation to score and one that Marlet accepted gratefully, stooping low to head beyond Russell Hoult. A record-breaking 23rd clean sheet of the season must await the West Bromwich goalkeeper.

"We have been working on that free kick in training," Collins said. "It was a great cross and a terrific header."

Two minutes later Louis Saha hoisted a splendid opportunity into the Smethwick End, where his supporters were awaiting to acclaim a second goal. It was a glaring piece of profligacy almost befitting Marlet at his worst.

West Bromwich had their moments. The best of them was when Dichio saw his header cleared off the line by Collins early on after the home supporters had been galvanised into partisan spirits by the broadcast of a recording describing Jeff Astle's 1968 Cup Final winner for Albion, their fifth Final success in ten appearances. The England centre forward, whose death in January was mourned by the Black Country club, would have been proud of the response last night although Gary Megson, the West Bromwich manager, will doubtless settle for a visit to the Millennium Stadium in the Nationwide League first division play-off final in May.

"The manner in which we lost it was pathetic," Megson said. "We can't say we deserved to win but we have matched a very good and expensive Fulham side."

The hard work will begin for Megson if he gains promotion with a squad devoid of quality and depth.

The Independent

Steve Marlet's sojourn beside the Thames has been soured by injury since Jean Tigana splashed Fulham's highest-ever fee of £11.5m to lure him from Lyon last summer. So the goal which settled last night's hectic FA Cup sixth-round tie at the Hawthorns - and West London's French enclave a semi-final date with its Italian equivalent - was as sweet for the striker as it was significant for his club.

Fulham thus reached the last four for the first time since the class of '75, which included Bobby Moore and Alan Mullery, reached Wembley as members of the old Second Division.

West Bromwich, whose more historically minded devotees harboured hopes of their repeating the triumph of 71 years ago, when they became the only club to win the Cup and gain promotion, were left to dwell on what might have been.

Gary Megson's men certainly had their moments, before and after the goal. Daniele Dichio, as befits a Hammersmith boy with his roots at Queen's Park Rangers, was a constant threat to Fulham, but in the semi-final analysis, Albion's best was never quite good enough.

Marlet, who is a full international but was trailing Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet and company in the pecking order for a World Cup place even before his time on the treatment table, struck at the start of the second half in a tie long on atmosphere yet short on finesse.

His opportunism ended a run of four defeats for Fulham and left Albion free to concentrate on following them into the Premiership, which they will almost certainly have to attempt via the play-offs. For the First Division's third-placed team it was a taste of their own medicine: they have won 13 games by the same score this season.

The first half was mediocre, passes repeatedly going astray. None of which mattered a jot to an expectant crowd so starved of big occasions in cup competitions that they even leapt to their feet in raucous appreciation when Albion's Darren Moore, ushered the ball behind for a goal-kick.

As the Premiership side - even though this is the first season they have ever been in a higher division than Albion - Fulham might have been expected to rise above the frenzy. The few flashes of class did come from John Collins and Steed Malbranque. Not for the first time, though, they seemed content with possession without penetration. They also lacked width, making it relatively easy for Moore and his cohorts to crowd them out.

Albion had two opportunities before Fulham forced Russell Hoult to break sweat. From a ninth-minute corner by Neil Clement, Dichio powered in a header which Collins headed off the line.

Dichio soon sent Scott Dobie scampering clear, only for him to roll the ball to Edwin Van der Sar as if executing a backpass. Megson, whose touchline antics make Martin O'Neill appear placid, led the mass placing of head in hands.

Fulham finally tested Hoult seven minutes before half-time. Luis Boa Morte's cross found Louis Saha near the penalty spot, but the Albion keeper kept out the Frenchman's first-time shot with his legs.

There was no such respite 100 seconds after the break. Collins, on Fulham's left, swung a free-kick in to the near post, Marlet rising unchallenged to prevent Hoult overtaking Albion's record of 22 clean sheets for a season with a goal Megson described as "pathetic" from a defensive standpoint.

Albion responded gamely. Bob Taylor's 20-yard drive brought a sprawling save from Van der Sar shortly after he came on as a third striker, and the substitute also pursued a through ball before being thwarted by the superior pace of Rufus Brevett.

Larus Sigurdsson, with a header straight into Van der Sar's hands, and Dichio, volleying over from a difficult angle, ensured that the decibel level remained high. At the other end, Saha gave Hoult another chance to prove his prowess, but no one could detract from Marlet's glory.

The Sun

FULHAM weathered a first-half storm to reach their first FA Cup semi-final for 27 years.

Steve Marlet's 47th-minute header both killed off First Division West Brom and kept the Cottagers on target for their first major trophy in their 114-year history.

The nearest they came was in 1975 when they went all the way to the final under the captaincy of Bobby Moore and were beaten 2-0 by West Ham.

Now they are one step away from the Millennium Stadium after overcoming a potential banana skin at The Hawthorns.

Gary Megson's side had knocked out Sunderland and Leicester on the way to the last eight and they again did the Nationwide League proud with a display full of passion and commitment.

They enjoyed more of the possession for much of the 90 minutes, particularly in the opening half, but goalscoring has been their problem all season and they missed the pace of the injured Jason Roberts.

Albion soon settled into their stride and it needed a goal-line clearance from John Collins to prevent Danny Dichio from giving them an eighth-minute lead.

Neil Clement's right-wing corner picked out the former Sunderland striker and he got in a powerful downward header which beat Edwin Van Der Sar - but Collins was on hand to head clear.

Fulham played with more purpose at the start of the second period and needed only two minutes to break the deadlock as the Albion defence went AWOL.

Malbranque sent over a free-kick from just outside the penalty area and no-one picked up Marlet who sent a powerful header past the exposed Russell Hoult for his seventh goal of the campaign.

Albion were rocked by this setback and two minutes later would have gone further behind but for a dreadful miss by Saha.

Malbranque put over a low cross after exchanging passes with Steve Finnan and Saha found himself completely unmarked eight yards out at the far post.

But he elected to hit the ball first time and his shot flew high over the bar much to Hoult's relief.

Albion manager Gary Megson's response was to bring on veteran striker Bob Taylor in place of midfielder Adam Chambers.

The 35-year-old was soon in the thick of the action and he almost caught Van Der Sar napping with a first-time effort from 30 yards which had him scrambling across his line to parry the ball away.

The home side started to build up a second head of steam and Dichio was only just too high with a volley from a narrow angle.

But Fulham were looking the more dangerous and Hoult saved a low shot on the turn from Saha and another similar effort by Marlet.

Taylor was denied a late appeal for a penalty after tangling with Rufus Brevett but the visitors held on to seal their passage into the last four.