Odemwingie sees red as Berbatov brace inflicts first defeat of term
DIMITAR Berbatov’s first-half double sentenced ten-man Albion to their first defeat of the season.
The Bulgarian international crowned his full Fulham debut by curling home a superb 32nd-minute opener – before the Baggies’ afternoon nosedived.
Peter Odemwingie was deservedly red-carded six minutes later for kicking out at Sascha Riether.
And it became almost Mission Impossible in the first minute of stoppage time when Berbatov grabbed his second from the spot after Billy Jones had fouled dangerman Alexander Kacaniklic.
Albion never really looked like getting back into the game after the break as their 45-year wait for a league win on Fulham soil continued.
Steve Sidwell made their misery complete with a close range volley a minute from time.
In truth, the hosts on top when they broke the deadlock but Steve Clarke was left wondering what might have been had Albion kept 11 men on the field as he tasted defeat for the first time.
Eleventh entertained third at Craven Cottage on a sunny afternoon on the banks of the Thames.
Clarke rang two changes, one enforced, as Jones was handed his first league start of the season in place of Steven Reid (hamstring) and Odemwingie was preferred to the benched Graham Dorrans.
Transfer deadline-day signing Goran Popov was denied his first involvement in a Baggies squad by a groin injury suffered in training yesterday.
Ex-Baggies midfielder Martin Jol made three changes, with Berbatov and Hugo Rodallega, plus Chris Baird, replacing Mahamadou Diarra, ex-Albion loan signing Kieran Richardson and Mladen Petric.
Zoltan Gera, who started on the bench for the third successive league match, was afforded the warmest of welcomes by the home fans as he returned to Fulham for the first time since rejoining Albion 13 months ago.
Not since Junichi Inamoto’s stunning League Cup winner in extra-time seven years ago had Albion won at Craven Cottage – and it was the hosts who enjoyed the early territorial advantage.
The Baggies had struggled to string even a couple of passes together but suddenly found their rhythm to good effect in the seventh minute. Following a move which started deep inside their own half, Odemwingie tested Mark Schwarzer with a 25-yard grass-cutter which the Fulham keeper dived to hold in front of his right-hand post.
It was Albion now keeping Fulham well and truly pegged back and, three minutes later, Schwarzer did well to push over James Morrison’s swirling 20-yard drive.
The game then descended into a war of attrition, with both teams proving difficult to break down.
It wasn’t until the 21st minute that there was further action in either penalty area, with Gareth McAuley forced into making an acrobatic clearance from Riether’s cross.
Fulham began exerting pressure on the Baggies goal but the visitors stood strong, with skipper Jonas Olsson leading the way with three vital interceptions in quick succession.
However, in a game of few chances, Fulham created and converted one on 32. Kacaniklic ran at Jones down the Cottagers’ left before squaring to the unmarked Berbatov, who had held his run into the box to perfection. The Bulgarian gave Ben Foster no chance with a fine curling finish from 15 yards.
Albion regrouped and went close on 37 when Marc-Antoine Fortune rose highest at the back post to head Morrison’s free-kick into the danger-zone. Olsson turned on a sixpence but saw his close-range effort blocked by Brede Hangeland.
But the Baggies had a bigger mountain to climb just a minute later when they were reduced to ten men. Odemwingie inexplicably kicked out at Riether and gave referee Roger East no option but to dismiss him.
It could have got even worse for Clarke’s side on 40 but, to their great relief, Berbatov planted a free ten-yard header wide from Kacaniklic’s centre.
Jones gave Fulham cause for concern with a barnstorming run inside from the right which took him past Baird, Hangeland and Aaron Hughes, only to run out of pitch to allow Schwarzer to gather.
However, the former Preston man made a more telling, albeit regretful, contribution at the other end in the first minute of stoppage time when he upended Kacaniklic in the box. Berbatov made no mistake from the penalty spot, sending Foster the wrong way.
Clarke took action at half-time. He replaced Shane Long and Fortune with Romelu Lukaku, who missed the last two Albion games with an ankle problem, and Chris Brunt.
The Baggies’ work-rate couldn’t be questioned as they set about trying to regain a foothold in the game but Fulham’s experienced unit proved a tough nut to crack.
And it was Jol’s side who recorded the next effort on goal, with Berbatov off-target with a hat-trick attempt from 20 yards on 56.
After his early activity, Schwarzer had been a peripheral figure for a long period but was called into action on 62 when he tipped over Brunt’s rising 25-yard shot.
The Northern Ireland international caught everyone by surprise, including Schwarzer, from the ensuing corner when his low delivery clipped the near post and bounced to safety.
Albion were starting to pose a real threat and from Brunt’s neat crossfield pass, Lukaku ran at two Fulham defenders before seeing his deflected 15-yard shot well held by Schwarzer.
Foster had to make an even better save to keep out Kacaniklic’s awkward 20-yard shot on 71 before bouncing back onto his feet to push the ball to safety in the nick of time before Sidwell could pounce.
Moments later, Foster showed terrific reflexes to divert over Duff’s strike from similar distance, which took a huge deflection off Berbatov en route.
Foster again had to be alert to push wide Rodallega’s 18-yard shot which was aided by another ricochet, this time off Olsson.
Albion kept plugging away and from Foster’s clearance, Schwarzer did well to hold onto Jones’ cross-cum-shot with several Baggies awaiting a tap-in.
The action surged straight to the other end and Foster did well to push away a Rodallega missile before sub Pajtim Kasami shot across the face of goal from an acute angle.
But Fulham DID add a third on 89. Kasami’s fierce cross looped off Foster’s outstretched arm and was headed onto the bar by Rodallega. Sidwell was first to the rebound and volleyed into an empty net.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Riether, Hughes, Hangeland, Riise; Duff (Smith 90+1), Baird, Sidwell, Kacaniklic (Kasami 84); Berbatov, Rodallega. Subs not used: Stockdale (gk), Kelly, Karagounis, Briggs, Trotta.
ALBION (4-2-3-1): Foster; Jones, McAuley, Olsson, Ridgewell; Mulumbu, Yacob (Rosenberg 76); Odemwingie, Morrison, Fortune (Brunt HT); Long (Lukaku HT). Subs not used: Myhill (gk), Gera, Dorrans, Dawson.
GOALS: FULHAM – Berbatov (32 & 45+1 pen), Sidwell (89).
SENDING-OFF: ALBION - Odemwingie (violent conduct 38).
REFEREE: R East (Wiltshire).
ALBION STARMAN: Ben Foster.