Tottenham Hotspur limbered up in positive fashion for their Champions League trip to Internazionale on Wednesday night while Fulham surrendered their unbeaten Premier League record under Mark Hughes. The devil, however, was in the detail here in west London and for Fulham it positively reeked of sulphur.
When Tom Huddlestone pulled the trigger on a shot from 25 yards in the 64th minute, from Gareth Bale's corner, with a gripping game finely poised, his Tottenham team-mate William Gallas appeared to be in an offside position in front of goal. Up went the linesman Martin Yerby's flag and, when the ball fizzed past Mark Schwarzer into the far corner of the net, the referee Mike Dean disallowed the goal.
But that was just the beginning. Dean, who had overruled Yerby in the first half over an offside call, decided to go over to him to check. It was unclear whether Tottenham's vociferous protests had motivated him to do so.
Huddlestone's shot had deflected slightly off Chris Baird but not off Gallas, despite him lunging for the ball, and suddenly there was Dean pointing to the centre circle, overruling the decision and reinstating the goal.
Whether Gallas had been interfering with play or, at the very least, distracting the goalkeeper, polarised the post-match discussion, which was a pity because there was plenty else to admire about the match.
Rafael van der Vaart continued to thrill - Tottenham fans reckon he could probably have strolled across the stretch of the Thames that runs past Craven Cottage - while Moussa Dembélé, back from an ankle injury, starred for Fulham in the first half, when they took the eye. His departure in the second half with a hip problem, coupled with the loss of Danny Murphy to a groin injury, served to fracture Fulham's rhythm.
Harry Redknapp, the Tottenham manager, could afford to be broadly sympathetic over the controversy of the winning goal. He suggested that he would like to see the rule changed back to how it once was, when a player in an offside position was pulled up for offside. "Now, it's inferring with play, second-phase possession and so on," he said. "It's become very complicated. How many fans actually know the rule? I'd be a liar if I said I was an expert in offside."
Hughes, though, was in more conspiratorial mood and prominent among his grievances was the issue of why Dean felt the need to clarify with Yerby the reason for the flag against Gallas. "Maybe he had lost faith in his assistant after overruling him in the first half," Hughes said, having confronted Dean after the full-time whistle. "Huddlestone was the first to get into Dean's face. Obviously, he made a compelling argument.
"Mark Schwarzer has to hold his position until the ball passes Gallas because he is thinking that Gallas might stick out his toe. So to say that Gallas is not interfering with play is completely at odds with the truth."
Redknapp had shown that his priority was the Premier rather than the Champions League by picking Ledley King from the start. Unfortunately, the central defender limped off with groin trouble in the 44th minute and, in Redknapp's words, "he will be out for a while".
After an early Tottenham flurry, which included a Roman Pavlyuchenko shot that went just wide, Fulham got on to the front foot and their goal, a close-range finish from Diomansy Kamara on his first start of the season, had been advertised.
The advantage, though, was gone in 60 seconds when Van der Vaart controlled and chipped in one breath-taking movement. The crossbar saved Fulham but Pavlyuchenko gobbled up the rebound for Spurs.
Both goalkeepers were worked in an enthralling contest. Schwarzer saved smartly from Van der Vaart and Alan Hutton, Heurelho Gomes acrobatically from Kamara and Baird. In the end though, it was Dean and Yerby who took centre stage.
THE FANS' PLAYER RATINGS AND VERDICT CHRIS LLOYD, Observer reader Mark Hughes was quite right to protest to the referee at the final whistle because the decision on Spurs' winning goal was quite appalling. The officials got everything wrong anyway and in my opinion that second goal should not have stood. The linesman flagged it offside straight away and it was only after Tottenham players complained that the referee consulted his linesman and the goal was awarded. Yet if we had taken our chances it wouldn't have mattered so much. Without Zamora we lack punch up front and letting them back into the game straight after we scored was an absolute tragedy.
The fan's player ratings Schwarzer 6; Baird 7, Hughes 7, Hangeland 7, Salcido 5; Davies 5, Greening 6 (Johnson 84 n/a), Murphy 6 (Kelly 52 6), Dempsey 6; Dembélé 6 (Gera 75 n/a), Kamara 6
DAVE MASON, Observer reader I'm a very happy man, it was an excellent performance and a thoroughly deserved three points. Van der Vaart was outstanding, the skill he showed for our first goal was sublime. What a signing he has been! We were a little bit unbalanced with Modric on the right wing in the first half but created lots of chances after the break when he moved inside and Lennon came on. Huddlestone's shot for the second goal rifled in, although we thought it was about to be disallowed - Fulham weren't happy. Assou-Ekotto was also outstanding. Just one complaint - Gallas's red boots. Any other colour would be fine.
The fan's player ratings Gomes 7; Hutton 7, Gallas 7, King 7 (Bassong 44 7), Assou-Ekotto 9; Modric 7, Huddlestone 8, Sandro 6 (Lennon ht 7), Bale 8; Van der Vaart 9; Pavlyuchenko 8 (Crouch 70 6)
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