Berbatov inflicts damage on Spurs’ Champions League hopes
Villas-Boas feeling heat after third straight defeat
André Villas-Boas had insisted it would be different this time. His man-management and squad rotation during his debut season at Tottenham Hotspur has had one eye on the club staying the full course, rather than hitting the buffers in the final months, as they had done twice previously under Harry Redknapp.
This, however, was a third consecutive defeat for the first time on his White Hart Lane watch and it escaped the attention of nobody in the home seats that the blip’s timing was eerily familiar and worrying.
That the damage was inflicted by Dimitar Berbatov, who used to strut his stuff in Tottenham colours, provided an irritating footnote for them. Berbatov's 11th Premier League goal of the season was just reward for how Fulham played it and the victory might have tasted particularly sweet for the manager Martin Jol, another former White Hart Lane employee.
Fulham have hit a small patch of purple – they have taken 11 points from an available 18 – to all but ensure their top-flight safety.
This is not a crisis for Tottenham but there was not much to like about a flat and one-paced performance, which followed their extra-time exertions on Thursday in Milan, when they had squeaked past Inter Milan in the Europa League despite a 4-1 loss on the night. Derbies have been good to Tottenham this season but not on this occasion and the upcoming international break will be a time to regroup and search souls.
Villas-Boas had started with five of the players who had played the 120 minutes at San Siro and four who had not featured, as he sought the blend to respond to Arsenal's eye-catching victory at Swansea City on Saturday. At kick-off time, Tottenham could feel their rivals' breath on their necks and it is a few degrees hotter now.
The tone of the afternoon might have been difference if Gareth Bale's athletically flicked header from Gylfi Sigurdsson's corner had not been cleared off the line by Sascha Riether in the fifth minute but the first-half came to be overwhelmed by passing so dreadful that it felt fitting this was a league fixture taking place on Sunday. It was awful to watch and the half-time whistle was a relief and a highlight.
Berbatov mixed a few sublime touches with ridiculous misunderstandings with his Fulham team-mates and followed the latter with his pitying death stare, as frustration and, indeed, apathy was the order of the half. The home crowd was subdued. Hugo Lloris spilt a low Berbatov cross but quickly recovered while Bale gave the Tottenham support another brief scare when he felt his right ankle after twisting awkwardly. He was able to resume.
Villas-Boas had started with four players who can play at left back but the only specialist, Benoît Assou-Ekotto, on the left wing but he reshaped at half-time, bringing on Clint Dempsey and dropping Assou-Ekotto into his usual position. Fulham's goal came from an incision up the flank.
Ashkan Dejagah surged forward, showing fleet of foot, before releasing Riether, whose low cross was turned home by Berbatov. Dejagah ran to celebrate with Riether, rather than Berbatov, presumably having grown fed up of the Bulgarian's posturing in his direction. Being Berbatov's Fulham team-mate cannot be easy, unless you are Bryan Ruiz, but the striker's fourth goal in five games had soothing properties.
The second-half was better, even if it could not have been worse. Bale had drawn a routine save out of Mark Schwarzer just before the goal while the substitute Jermain Defoe fizzed a shot straight at the Fulham goalkeeper on 70 minutes. Before that, Brede Hangeland might have made the game safe for Fulham only to head wide when unmarked at the far post.
Dejagah missed a fine headed chance from Ruiz's corner as Fulham refused to allow their travelling fans to breath easily and Defoe almost profited in injury-time from Bale's cross only for Schwarzer to make an outstanding reflex save. A late twist would have been tough on Fulham.