Fulham (1), Aston Villa (2) – Our Villans bounce back against in-form Fulham

Saturday, February 17th, 15:00 – Craven Cottage

Referee: Lewis Smith

The cumulative disappointments of back-to- back losses and injuries to pivotal starters (Kamara and Diego Carlos) would have weakened the belief of many teams, and even Villa teams of recent years.  Only the very best would have expected to march into Craven Cottage and impose their will on the game from the kickoff and never let it go.  That is exactly what our reconfigured Villans did.

It was not as if Fulham played poorly or with lack of conviction.  On the day, Fulham would have prevailed over most teams.  They played creative soccer, defended well, and held advantages in terms of possession and shots.  What they lacked was the precision to create gilt-edge chances that are usually required to beat our Emi Martinez.  Their lone goal was pure opportunism on the part of their new acquisition, Brazilian Rodrigo Muniz. Fortunately, for us, he had only one up his sleeve.

For our Villans, it was an opportunity to accomplish what the team had failed to do against Manchester United.  The two clinical finishes by Ollie Watkins that won the game and the errorless performances by the whole team was exactly what was needed.  Gaining a two goal lead and precluding Fulham getting the kinds of opportunities that were afforded Højlund and McTominay was the perfect recipe.

It was a very tidy away win that offers a template for the balance of the season.  Of course, similar performances at home may not be as crowd-pleasing and may not be possible given the enthusiasm of the home fans, but I would not be surprised to see our Villans be more self-disciplined in the final stretch, home as well as away.

So, what happened at Craven Cottage on Saturday?  To start with, there was less suspense about the starting line-up given the unavailability of Mings, Buendia, Konsa, Kamara, Jhon Duran, and, most recently, Diego Carlos.

Fortunately, Pau Torres was available to start for the first time since he was injured on December 17th last and Lucas Digne was available for the first time since he was injured on December 26th.  The selection of Tielemans to replace Kamara was the most logical option, with no other experienced midfielder available.  It was equally logical to retain Moreno at left-back given his consistently high-quality two-way performances.  Emery named Lenglet to move to Carlos’s RCB position so Torres could resume his preferred LCB position. Meanwhile, Cash stayed at right-back.

On offense, Bailey, Watkins, and Ramsey picked themselves based on their recent performances.

Fulham were unchanged from the team that comfortably beat Bournemouth at home a week prior with two goals by newcomer, Rodrigo Muniz who was replacing the injured Raul Jimenez.

Fulham’s fans gave their team a rousing welcome reflecting their recent wins and their move towards the top half of the table.  Not to be outdone, our Villa away fans were their match in terms of loudness.

Naturally, a question high on the minds of most Villa fans was how quickly Pau Torres would settle into the game after a break of two months.  Fortunately, it was as if he had never missed a game.  There is a languidness to Pau’s play – he never seems to be rushed, even when he is running at speed – and it is contagious to his teammates.

Just as importantly. Lenglet appeared to be as comfortable playing on the right side and, maybe, more comfortable.  He immediately struck an effective connection with Matty Cash with his left-footed passes seeming to be flatter and arrive faster than the right-footed passes of Ezri and Diego that tended to bounce.  With Lenglet and Torres making themselves available on each side of the penalty area for Emi, Fulham’s high press was thwarted.  If they had pressed both center backs Luiz could be the option. 

Most significantly, Ramsey, confidently retreated into channels at speed, tempting his marker into rash responses.  Jacob’s quick give and go’s, immediate pivots, and carries opened up a number of openings for us to launch attacks. Tielemans, similarly, was always moving when Fulham had possession and, when we had possession, he was always looking for the fast break potential of Bailey and Watkins.

It was one such incisive instant pass that Youri directed for Ollie to run onto that saw Leno easily beaten by our accomplished striker.  That was in the 3rd minute, only for the referee’s assistant to raise his flag for offside.  Still, it indicated that Fulham had better watch out.

While Villa did dominate possession, the Cottagers were lively with their fullbacks, especially the speedy Robinson often making himself available deep downfield.  They also showed they were not afraid to shoot at any sight of goal.  Well-marshalled by our well-positioned center backs, Muniz managed to swivel and get in a shot in the 7th minute.  Emi saved comfortably without needing to dive.

Next, Ramsey whipped out a pass to Moreno on the left touchline and, though he was unable to get around Castagne, he did win a corner.  Ream was able to clear.  That was in the 9th minute.

In our next foray, it was Moreno feeding Ramsey just outside the box on the left and our precocious England Under-21 international looked like his confidence was back as he dragged the ball across the outside of the box before sending a stinging drive towards the near post. Too bad it was a little wide.  That was in the 11th minute.

Finally, Fulham started to get some traction on the game.  De Cordova-Reid was able to compete for a ball in our Villain penalty area with Torres but went over demanding a penalty kick.  The referee ruled that the collision was incidental, and the forward had fallen too easily.  A nervous moment, still.

Then Bailey caught Cairney with a high boot, picking up a freekick on the left.  The freekick was headed on by a white shirt, and efficiently deposited behind Emi by Ream.  Immediately, the flag went up for offside.  That was an immediate reassurance that our team’s offside trap was more focused than it was against Man U.

Offesnsive reassurance came soon after.  Robinson took a loose throw-in to Willian running towards his own penalty area.  The Brazilian immediately had our speedy Ramsey on the scent, pressing from behind and, when Jacob saw the ball, he nicked it.  Between his push and Watkins pull, our lethal striker had possession in the box.  He swiveled around and away from Diop, onto his right foot and, without looking up, knew where he wanted to shoot.

Leno had advanced and cut down the angle but the shot was racing across the turf, and by him, before he could move.  As the goalie hit the ground, he could see the shot enter the net less than a foot from his right post.  Fulham 0, Aston Villa 1, in the 22nd minute.

The goal certainly upped the tempo of the game as the hosts tried to respond immediately and our Villans sought to take advantage of their aggression.  One dangerous attack featured an excellent pass by Palhinha, deep in his own half, to Castagne well up level with our Villan penalty area.  An immediate pull-back to the arriving Pereira, in the inside-right channel, was whipped into the edge of the 6-yard box for Muniz to rise to.  Unfortunately for the Brazilian, Cash and Lenglet were already there, and they withstood the assault and the ball fell between them from where Torres immediately despatched.

Seconds later, Pereira carried the ball across the field and took a wild shot that went well over Emi’s crossbar.  With possession, our Villans, through Ramsey, were able to cut through Fulham’s midfield, and zip a pass out to Bailey.  In a flash, Leon turned Robinson inside-out and whipped a shot that rocked off Leno’s crossbar.

Within a minute, Luiz and Tielemans combined to set up Bailey inside the box but Leon, slipped and the opportunity was lost.  In the 34th minute, Diop clumsily stepped on Watkins’ ankle in, what could have caused a serious injury.  Fortunately, Ollie is remarkably resilient and flexible, much to the team’s and fans’ relief.

Another Villa attack that cut through the center of the field before arriving at Bailey, on the right, saw Villans lining up for his pull-back, only for Diop to get a grateful foot in the way.  From the corner, by Luiz, he found Watkins who relayed a header to Moreno open at the corner of the 6-yard box.  Alex, again, proved to be capable of scoring and headed powerfully into the net.  That was in the 40th minute and we were in a whisker of gaining a 2-0 lead.  Eventually, VAR concluded that it was marginally offside.

While Muniz came close to getting a header from a corner inside Martinez’s right post, it was our Villans who came closest to scoring.  With first half injury time expiring, Ollie nicked the ball from Palhinha at the halfway line and headed in possession towards the penalty area.

With Diop unsupported, Ollie looked for Tielemans to catch up with him, to his right so that the Belgian could receive the pass and have a one-on-one with Leno.  The Belgian finally made it and the feed was there.  The only problem was that Leno had advanced, in anticipation, and threw out a leg that repelled the shot.  Tielemans looked devastated.  Still, our Villans had proven, again, that they could break down this Fulham team.  When the halftime whistle blew, they had the lead but still had plenty to do.

The second half started with Fulham having made one change, Alex Iwobi for Willian.  Back from representing Nigeria at the Africa Cup tournament, he offered a similar package of skills but with more positivity.  Willian’s poor effort that allowed Villa to score was symptomatic of his overall performance.

Right away Iwobi looked as if he might be the lynch-pin to even the score as he broke through the Villa backline to get on the end of a Pereira cross and set up De Cordova-Reid.  Cash blocked that shot but, meanwhile, the flag had been raised for offside. 

Still, there was intent and industry.  Unfortunately for the Cottagers there was a lack of precision and Martinez was able to easily gather crosses to squelch attacks.  Our Villans, meanwhile, were patient in possession and disciplined in defending.  When they did get an opportunity, they were lethal.

Patient build up from the rear saw the ball go from Lenglet to Torres, carried twenty yards then pulled back to Luiz, forward to McGinn near the halfway line, stroked forward to Tielemans who saw that Ollie had broken away from Diop, who had been caught a step too far forward and on his heels.  The Belgian’s pass was immediate and perfect, and by the time it reached Ollie, Diop was out of the picture but Ream and Robinson were squeezing from each side.

Watkins had a lot to do.  He was entering the penalty area with Leno, already outside his 6-yard box cutting down the angle.  Ollie’s second touch was a blast that flew by the goalie’s right arm.  The ball hit the back of the net before Leno had completed his dive.  It was reminiscent of Dennis Bergkamp’s shots in the speed of his release.  Fulham 0, Aston Villa 2, in the 56th minute.

What should have been plain sailing, became a competitive game when a communication problem occurred between Emi and Lenglet.  Before that our Villans looked totally in control zipping short passes, ‘a la Man City’, and forcing the Cottagers into rash tackles such as Palhinha made on Tielemans at the edge of their box.  The shot, by Bailey, was wide of the mark.  Then Ramsey, probably distracted by Pereira, skied a good opportunity to shoot well over the bar.

From the ensuing goal kick, Ream found Cairney on the left wing and he lofted a well-weighted pass down the left wing  for Robinson to run onto.  Cash was well positioned to block his passage to the penalty area so the American fullback immediately crossed toward the 6-yard box.  Lenglet was positioned to clear but Martinez, presumably, thought he could gather and called Lenglet off.

Meanwhile, Muniz sensing an opportunity jumped between our two Villans and deftly deflected the cross behind Martinez who was caught in no-man’s land.  The ball nestled into the back of the net.  Fulham had suddenly made a game of it.  Fulham 1, Aston Villa 2, in the 63rd minute.

Our Villans responded immediately with a sumptuous move that started in their own half.  Cash passed to Bailey on the wing and he executed a perfect one-two with Tielemans.  Running clear of Robinson into the Fulham half he noted that Watkins was racing between Diop and Castagne, once more, toward the Fulham penalty area and Leon arced a right-footed pass Ollie reached at the penalty area. 

Diop, who had been burned twice, decided to stick a leg out into Ollie before he scored his third goal. Ollie hit the deck arms raised for the obvious penalty kick, as did Jacob Ramsey.  Young, first-time refereeing, Lewis Smith may have lacked the confidence to make the call and waved play on.  That was in the 66th minute and, less than a minute later Watkins again almost scored.

Iwobi attempted a cross field pass only for Ramsey to acrobatically intercept and set Watkins on his way again.  After running at Castagne, he veered to his right and across the edge of the box before lashing another brilliant shot that Leno scrambled over to cover.  It went just wide of Leno’s left post. The goalie would have had no chance if it had gone the other side.

Fulham brought on Wilson and Traore in an effort to get an equalizer.  An excellent move in the 84th minute almost created the opportunity.  Palhinha slid in to intercept a Villa pass at midfield, jumped up in possession and set Iwobi on his way down the right wing.  The Arsenal Academy graduate managed to get in a dangerous cross for Muniz to run onto just outside the 6-yard box only for Lenglet to execute a timely sliding intervention before the ball arrived.

Meanwhile, Emery brought on Digne and Diaby to replace Moreno and Bailey.  It was Traore who had Fulham’s best opportunity as he broke between Torres and Digne to be one-on-one with Martinez. With the angle in his favor, Emi did well to thrust out a leg and save. Losing the win in injury time would have been particularly vexing.

As it was, there was no more drama and our Villans were all-smiles at the final whistle for a deserved win.

Fulham: Leno, Castagne, Diop, Ream (Bassey 76′), Robinson, Palhinha (Lukic 89′), Cairney, De Cordova-Reid (Wilson 64′), Pereira (Traoré 75′), Willian (Iwobi 45′), Muniz.

Unused Subs: Rodák, Adarabioyo, Reed, Ballo-Touré.

Aston Villa: Martínez, Cash, Lenglet, Torres, Moreno (Digne 81′), Bailey (Diaby 81′), McGinn, Luiz, Ramsey, Tielemans (Iroegbunam 94′), Watkins.

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