Aston Villa's bid to break into the Premiership's top three was frustrated by Fulham's dogged resistance in a 0-0 draw at Villa Park on Saturday. Martin O'Neill's side needed a win to tuck themselves in behind joint-leaders Liverpool and Chelsea and further enhance their credentials as genuine contenders in the race for a Champions League place. But they flattered to deceive against a determined Fulham rearguard and, with striker John Carew suspended, looked short of attacking options.
Gareth Barry went closest to breaking the deadlock, but his second-half header hit the crossbar. Fulham, having ground out a scoreless draw against Liverpool at Anfield seven days earlier, picked up another useful road point. Villa were high on confidence after impressive recent performances against Arsenal and Manchester United yielded four points. But they failed to match the brisk start they made at home to United seven days previously and found it tough to get going against a side with the joint worst away record in the Premiership, just two draws on their travels this season.
Fulham packed players behind the ball and rarely ventured towards the Villa goal in the opening half hour. Their best effort was a hopeful volley from Simon Davies, booked for an early challenge on Barry, skied well over, and Villa goalkeeper Brad Friedel, setting a Premiership record of 167 consecutive appearances, had little to do.
Villa had a couple of half-hearted penalty shouts ignored by referee Mike Jones, both involving Gabriel Agbonlahor, and went close to taking a 23rd-minute lead after Fulham's defence was finally pried open by Agbonlahor's pace. The England star set up Ashley Young, whose far post cross was met by Barry. But, in the game's first clear chance, Barry's header shaved the outside of the post. Agbonlahor's link play with Young set up a half-chance, but Young fired over, before Villa wasted a glorious chance to take the lead six minutes before half-time. Young was again involved, swinging a superb free-kick in behind the visitors defence. He picked out Steve Sidwell, who had the goal at his mercy, but the midfielder headed over from five yards.
Two minutes later Fulham almost pinched the lead against the run of play. Clint Dempsey's looping effort from the edge of the 18-yard box caught Friedel off his line and the American had to backpedal smartly to tip the ball over. Villa continued to struggle to find a way through after the break. James Milner dragged a shot wide, and in a sustained burst of pressure the home side forced four corners in two minutes. Mark Schwarzer punched one across the face of his own goal, but Fulham refused to yield.
Home frustrations increased in the 70th minute when Barry was denied by the woodwork. Young again was the provider and Barry met his cross with a powerful header, only to see his effort bounce up off the turf and strike the crossbar with Schwarzer beaten. Fulham almost crept ahead with 15 minutes to go when a fierce shot from Dempsey was knocked out by Friedel before Barry's afternoon of near-misses continued when he glanced another header wide from Young's corner. There was a late scare for Fulham when Schwarzer flapped at another Young cross, but luck was on the goalkeeper's side.