Lukaku's leveller in vain as Baggies gift visitors win
ALBION’S January 1 curse struck again as they lost at home on New Year’s Day for the third successive time.
Dimitar Berbatov’s 39th-minute strike separated the two teams at the break after a poor first half.
But the Baggies were level just four minutes after the restart when Romelu Lukaku slotted home his seventh league goal of the season.
Albion then piled on the pressure, with Lukaku and Fulham old boy Zoltan Gera both smashing the woodwork – only for Steve Clarke’s side to fall behind again, this time to Alexander Kacaniklic’s 58th-minute drive.
That proved the game’s decisive moment as Fulham secured their first-ever Barclays Premier League win at The Hawthorns – and the double over Albion this term.
Seventh entertained 14th – separated by 12 points – in the first Barclays Premier League fixture of 2013.
Fit-again Youssouf Mulumbu (hamstring) returned to the starting XI as Clarke rang five changes. Gera, James Morrison, Marc-Antoine Fortune and Lukaku were also restored in place of George Thorne, Markus Rosenberg, Peter Odemwingie, Shane Long - who were among the subs - and Graham Dorrans, who was left out altogether.
Martin Jol, who played for the Baggies for two years in the early 80s, made one change as Kacaniklic came in for the benched Kerim Frei. Ex-Albion loan signing and 'Great Escape' hero Kieran Richardson was among the subs.
Fulham saw plenty of the ball during the early stages as Albion took a while to get going. In the tenth minute, Gareth McAuley had to make a vital interception to prevent Bryan Ruiz collecting Kacaniklic’s slide-rule ball to deny the Costa Rican a clear sight of goal.
Two minutes later, Steve Sidwell recorded the first shot of the game when he advanced towards the Baggies box before firing harmlessly wide.
This was hardly riveting stuff for the sell-out home sections, or the live TV audience, and the Baggies’ first effort on goal in the 16th minute was equally forgettable, with McAuley flicking a Chris Brunt free-kick two yards wide.
But the hosts almost created the first clear-cut chance of the game on 23. For a split second, Lukaku looked clean through as he exchanged a neat one-two with Gera, but the latter just over-cooked his pass, enabling David Stockdale to rush out and save at the feet of the on-loan Chelsea striker.
This was much better from the Baggies and Stockdale was relieved to see Fortune’s acute 15-yard drive clip Brede Hangeland and loop over his bar after the former Celtic ace had latched onto Ben Foster’s sublime diagonal ball wide on the right.
Albion’s purple patch continued when Lukaku dispossessed Aaron Hughes just inside the Cottagers’ box and raced towards the penalty area. However, the Belgian powerhouse took too long to get his shot away, enabling Sidwell to slide in and divert his effort wide.
From Brunt’s ensuing corner, Gabriel Tamas rose highest and wasn’t too far away with a powerful header.
However, Albion proved their own worst enemy on the half-hour mark when Brunt under-hit his attempted back-pass to Foster. Berbatov pounced on the loose ball but with McAuley covering, the Bulgarian’s ambitious 25-yard shot sailed well over.
After another scrappy passage of play. Gera teed up Morrison who saw his fierce 20-yard drive deflected wide by Hangeland.
The general inaccuracy of finishing continued on 37 when Sascha Riether shot well wide from 25 yards.
But Fulham finally recorded the game’s first shot on target two minutes later – and snatched the lead. Berbatov launched a counter-attack and from his ball wide, Ashkan Dejagah jinked inside Liam Ridgewell before teeing up the former Manchester United striker, who beat the unsighted Foster from 15 yards.
Albion regrouped and from their best move of the match thus far, Mulumbu headed just wide from Ridgewell’s centre – but that was the final action of a tame first 45.
But there was a different atmosphere inside the stadium just four minutes after the restart – as the hosts levelled.
Fortune found Billy Jones out wide after a forceful run down the middle and the right-back bamboozled Matthew Briggs before teeing up Lukaku for the simplest of tap-ins.
The Baggies looked a transformed side and began to turn the screw.
Lukaku went mightily close when he controlled Morrison’s lofted ball, held off Hughes and volleyed against the post from ten yards.
And there was further Albion agony in the 55th minute.
Mulumbu dissected the Fulham defence and Lukaku saw his right-footed shot from just inside the box diverted away from goal by Stockdale. Gera pounced on the loose ball and looked certain to score as he aimed for the empty net, only to strike the foot of the post. The rebound fell to Brunt who saw his ferocious 18-yard drive headed away from the empty net by Hughes.
However, despite their pressure, Albion incredibly found themselves behind again in the 58th minute. Kacaniklic raced onto Ruiz’s lofted ball down the middle before turning inside McAuley and shooting past the onrushing Foster.
It was turning into a frustrating afternoon for Albion and Clarke rang his first changes on 65, replacing Fortune and Gera with Odemwingie and Long.
It was the Baggies who were asking all of the questions again and they put the Fulham goal under considerable pressure by winning three successive corners.
On 75, Lukaku came within inches of connecting with Morrison’s ball across the face of goal. Ridgewell did well to keep the ball alive along the far by-line and from his centre, Lukaku headed just wide of the right-hand post.
Albion still weren’t at their most fluent but Hangeland had to produce a terrific near-post tackle to prevent Odemwingie from sliding in Lukaku’s low centre.
With the Baggies piling men forward, Fulham looked dangerous on the break and Berbatov saw a presentable chance clip a home defender and fly wide.
At the other end, another chance went begging when Lukaku headed wide from Morrison’s corner.
Foster had a relatively comfortable save to make when Kacaniklic shot straight at him from a tight angle from Berbatov’s lay-off. From a similar position, Morrison also found Stockdale’s midriff.
Albion’s second-half pressure really had warranted a point and Fulham got another break when Jones cut into the box, just like he did for the goal, and his low cross somehow stayed out despite ricocheting off both Hangeland and Hughes.
The Baggies’ final chance came and went in the fourth minute of stoppage time, when Odemwingie’s low cross was neatly back-heeled goalwards by Long, but Stockdale pounced on the ball before Morrison could sweep home.
ALBION (4-2-3-1): Foster; Jones, McAuley, Tamas, Ridgewell; Mulumbu, Brunt (Thorne 84); Fortune (Odemwingie 65), Morrison, Gera (Long 65); Lukaku. Subs not used: Myhill (gk), Jara Reyes, Dawson, Rosenberg.
FULHAM (4-4-1-1): Stockdale; Riether, Hangeland, Hughes, Briggs; Dejagah, Karagounis (Rodallega 76), Sidwell, Kacaniklic; Ruiz; Berbatov. Subs not used: Somogyi (gk), Senderos, Baird, Kasami, Richardson, Frei.
GOALS: ALBION – Lukaku (49). FULHAM – Berbatov (39), Kacaniklic (58).
REFEREE: M Dean (Wirral).
ALBION STARMAN: Romelu Lukaku.