Rene stops the rot

Posted by Phil Mison

Steve Sidwell APSteve Sidwell slots home against his old side.

The green shoots of recovery seen in the Cottage garden Wednesday against Spurs were no mirage as new Fulham boss Rene Meulensteen bagged his first win at the helm as the Whites defeated Aston Villa 2-0 -- their first win in seven attempts.

- Hughes: Villa frustrated by Fulham

That abject display at Upton Park a week ago seems like something from a different age. If Fulham felt a little cheated not to take something from the Spurs derby, here the big decisions went their way as referee Mike Dean felt the wrath of Paul Lambert's comments post match. The result hinged on one penalty shout given in Fulham's favour that looked anything but clear cut, and a trip by Aaron Hughes in the box on Gabby Agbonlahor that should have been penalised perhaps, but wasn't.

Let's deal with the controversial issues first. Fulham start brightly with Rene making just one change to the side, and an interesting one at that. Steve Sidwell gets a recall at the expense of Pajtim Kasami. Now we've all been moaning from the rooftops that Sidwell and Scottie Parker don't work together in midfield. Well, allied to another galvanizing performance from Giorgos Karagounis for the Whites, they did here.

On 30 minutes Sascha Riether smacks a ball up to Dimitar Berbatov on half-way. He flicks the dropping ball straight over his shoulder and puts Alexander Kacaniklic clean through on goal. Driving into the box Alex at the critical moment delays his shot and his run crucially narrows the angle. The recovering full-back arrives on the hustle -- both go down in a heap and Mike Dean says penalty kick. Dimi dummies Brad Guzan and strokes the ball into the opposite corner as if he were flicking channels on his TV remote. Fulham have a two goal cushion. Paul Lambert was not impressed.

With five minutes to play Agbonlahor wrong foots Aaron in the box before the away fans and replays show the Irishman catches the man and not the ball. The Villa fans howl as the lino keeps his flag down. It was right in front of this writer -- I felt Hughes had got the ball. I was wrong, but who’d be a referee? Back to Lambert again.

"I didn't think theirs was a penalty kick and I did think ours should have been. The referee got some big decisions wrong today but I've no complaints with the result, we didn't do enough to win. We were not at the levels seen in recent weeks." Respect.

Meulensteen was of course cock a hoop. He got his team set up right, another very positive showing from Berbatov, he was vindicated in his selections, and it is patently obvious the boys are responding to his methods. Remember it was only eight days ago the Fulham side managed not one single effort on target at West Ham. Here we enjoyed the lion's share of possession, got off 21 shots in total and nine on target, hit the woodwork twice, kept a clean sheet and delivered more crosses into the box than any game in the past nine months.

Both sides went close before Sidwell hooked the Whites ahead with a cute piece of opportunism from a tight angle after neat work from both Berbatov and Ashkan Dejagah, before Fulham struck that all important 2nd goal. The side came out and maintained the intensity into the 2nd half. In truth, Fulham could easily have had more.

How to explain the rapid turnaround? These are all players who looked all at sea under Martin Jol during the last three months of meltdown. One enduring vignette from the afternoon summed it up. As the teams emerged for the 2nd half Meulensteen approached the dug out, looked up into the Riverside stand and clenched his fists with a white-lipped snarl of "Come on!" Not once did he do this, but twice.

More emotion than we saw from Jol in three seasons. The Dutch coach has demanded big performances from men marginalized at various times by Martin Jol, and he's getting them. Aaron Hughes, Philippe Senderos, John Arne Riise, Karagounis, Ashkan Dejagah.

This is going to be a very different Fulham side in the 2nd half of the season, especially after the January transfer window. Rumours that Clint Dempsey will be back wearing the badge are circulating, the feel-good factor is building. Although the three points are not enough to lift us out of the bottom three, with the side regaining belief and pride in the shirt, even wins over Everton and Manchester City in the run up to Christmas are possible.

What we the fans have back, is hope. Our number one Fulham fan from North Carolina returns to the USA having enjoyed the day of her life -- getting her picture taken in McBride’s Bar and seeing the Whites win in thrilling fashion. The Meulensteen factor’s in play -- and quickly too. Time to feel the force! COYW!

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