Photo Gallery: No gain for Norwich City at Fulham, but no lasting pain either
Fulham 2, Norwich City 1: Redemption may have been in short supply for Norwich City in west London. More a case of another Premier League lesson learned.
Granted, not of the seismic variety that signposted their last visit to Craven Cottage; a day those who hold the Canaries dear will never, ever forget. One that set the club on a downward spiral to a point nearly seven years in the making.
The end result will have carried none of the pain of May 2005 for the many thousands situated behind the same goal Fulham attacked with such ferocity and surgical precision in the early phase.
At kick off, they burst into a chant of, 'staying up, up, up.' That particular stand had echoed to those same choruses before. Then they were premature. Not now. With each passing weekend, Norwich edge a step closer to achieving safety.
Paul Lambert and his players must still preach caution, but all that remains now is to embellish the toil, the graft and the undoubted quality that has carried them well clear of those fighting the same fight Nigel Worthington's squad lost in such cruel fashion.
This was not another lesson in survival at Craven Cottage. This was a lesson in self-preservation. In how to build a sustainable club that can flourish in the Premier League. One that has enjoyed the odd slice of European success in recent seasons. One that shows what is possible tucked in among the aristocrats and the high rollers. Well away from the intense glare that follows the higher profile cabal who demand league and cup glories.
Fulham's merited victory drew Martin Jol's men level with the Canaries in the current standings. That in itself is a fine testament to the huge strides made by the visitors. Fulham went into the game without a win or a goal in their last three. But the match before that they hammered five past Wolves.
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They also put five past Newcastle and six past QPR at Craven Cottage earlier in the campaign. Took four points off Arsenal and drew at Stamford Bridge. Statistics can be dressed up any way you want them. The underlying message here is of a club offering a reliable road map towards Premier League longevity.
Fulham have proved it is possible to fight against the prevailing currents. Their financial model may differ from that of the Canaries. The Cottagers' rich benefactor took to the pitch before the real action began for his regular scarf-waving ritual.
Fulham's fan base should hail Mohamed Al Fayed with good reason. Their chairman's wealth has helped construct a squad that contains both talent and technique in equal measure alongside the graft and the collective powers of endurance needed to survive year in, year out.
Men like Aaron Hughes and Stephen Kelly share the same platform as Clint Dempsey and Mousa Dembele. Mark Schwarzer and Danny Murphy provide experience; Kerim Frei or Alex Kacaniklic youthful vigour.
The men at the helm may change, but the ethos of the club since they were promoted to the Premier League more than decade ago now remains the same. Another lesson Norwich's hierarchy would do well to take on board for the future.
Martin Jol's influence is obvious in his side's style of play. Purists would have relished both Premier League tussles with the Canaries. Simeon Jackson's stoppage time leap at Carrow Road was a reward for Norwich's unquenchable spirit. Here again they finished on the front foot, but they paid for early vulnerability. Not since Sunderland have City looked quite so brittle away from Norfolk. Fulham can retain possession with the best, as they showed at Old Trafford days earlier. They also have a ruthless seam running through their midfield. Dempsey, Dembele and Damien Duff are a treble most of the clubs outside the elite would covet.
Lambert made a reference during the build up to the vibrant passing instincts of his own adventurous players, which was so self-evident against Wolves. But pleasing on the eye must equate to an end product for maximum effect. The origins of Fulham's early salvo would not have been lost on Lambert. Nor should it his players.
Dempsey displayed a striker's instinct to react quickest after John Ruddy palmed out Bryan Ruiz's curler. The American then linked with Dembele to exploit space in front of Norwich's back three before sliding a pass into Duff's feet. The Irishman did the rest. City had contributed to their own downfall, but that should not dilute Fulham's purposeful intent. Two bursts. Two goals. An enviable conversion rate that could never last.
Wes Hoolahan picked out Jonny Howson at the second attempt. The chest control was sublime. The attempted roll past Schwarzer from close range lacked the precision that had gone before. City's threat was sporadic. Jackson's arrival at half-time for Zak Whitbread was a tacit acceptance Norwich were second best. Fulham could have already been out of sight. Ryan Bennett's presence ensured that was not the case. A brave block denied Dembele the chance to slam a third into an unguarded net after Dempsey's poke past Ruddy cannoned off his far post and back into play.
Bennett possesses the physical attributes to operate at the highest level, but the England U21 international also exhibited an air of assurance. All the more impressive given Fulham's initial surge and his inadvertent role in the opener.
Bennett's refusal to back down in the aftermath of a near post first half collision with Dempsey further hinted that Norwich have signed a young man with rock solid belief in his own ability to flourish in the Premier League.
Lambert's squad is full of similar characters. The Scot eschewed popular wisdom last summer that said he needed to find recruits with extensive top flight experience. Bennett is the latest example. Just like Howson. The City manager and the fans who hero-worship him have been handsomely repaid to this point of the campaign.
Fulham had pummelled away, but Norwich were able to cover up. With Jackson introduced to support Steve Morison, the Canaries began to counter. Schwarzer was finally called into meaningful service when he clawed out Hoolahan's low strike. Ruddy went one better with an agile leap to tip Kacaniklic's long range shot onto his bar.
Bennett miscued David Fox's corner under pressure from Brede Hangeland before sensing danger at the opposite end when Ruiz rolled in the overlapping Kelly. Hughes then sidefooted over after Murphy and Dembele constructed a quickly-taken free-kick. City's encouraging response since half-time appeared on the wane. With the suspended Grant Holt not an option, Lambert turned to Aaron Wilbraham to provide the spark.
The 32-year-old has been fed on meagre rations since joining the club, but his introduction against Manchester United last month underlined his residual value to the cause.
Only David De Gea's brilliant reactions denied him a maiden Premier League goal. Schwarzer was left stranded when it duly did arrive after he controlled Hoolahan's crossfield pass to check inside Kelly and rifle against the luckless Hughes.
Jol called for muscular reinforcements. Mahamadou Diarra had already replaced Murphy when Norwich old boy Dickson Etuhu added his considerable bulk to the home cause.
City's support was less than warm in its welcome. Etuhu responded in kind. Hoolahan was swatted to the ground in a robust challenge that earned a first home booking. A second should have followed in stoppage time when Russell Martin was smashed to the turf with a cheap shot from behind. The beast among the beauty.
Schwarzer needed to be fully committed to punch clear Elliott Bennett's drilled centre with Jackson sensing an opening. Then Hughes' partial headed clearance from Martin's launch dropped for Wilbraham to lash wide in stoppage time. With it went Norwich's prospects of salvaging a point.
The massed ranks behind the Australian's goal would have taken it. This ground, more than most, owed them a few happy memories.
Comparisons with 2005 are only relevant now in order to gauge Norwich's accelerated rate of progress. This latest trip to SW6 perhaps served as a reminder there is always room for improvement.