Wonders never Cisse for tired Toon
Cometh the hour-and-a-half, cometh the man. Newcastle's No. 9, Papiss Cisse, added another chapter to his St James' fairytale with a strike in the dying embers that his manager described as "priceless".
The effort served to reinforce the notion that perseverance can be a striker's greatest asset. Sometimes criticised for an inability to do the simple when the sublime can seem so effortless, he should have had his team in front long before his injury-time winner.
Presented with a simple chance midway through the first half, his decision not to play the square ball for Sylvain Marveaux looked all the worse when his resulting shot went high over the bar. Alan Pardew revealed after the match that he had shown the striker the video footage of his chance at half-time to illustrate the need for composure. The screening elicited a negative response, and left Pardew questioning his decision.
By full-time, the manager would have been satisfied. As against Stoke and Anzhi Makhachkala, Cisse was given the chance to deliver the coup de grâce in injury time and answered emphatically, volleying past Mark Schwarzer after controlling a Yohan Cabaye shot.
Cisse raced away to embrace the home fans in joyous celebration as referee Kevin Friend stood and waited, yellow card in hand. It was the end of what had been an often difficult day for Cisse, Friend more of a foe to the striker. His manager, though, could have no cause for complaint: he too felt compelled to engage in some crowd interaction, enjoying an embrace with a clutch of fans.
With a minute to play, pandemonium filled the stands, but that was a stark contrast to the groans and whistles that had preceded Cisse's intervention. It was a just response to a game that was for large periods dull and devoid of excitement, as Fulham stifled their over-eager opponents.
The visitors were organized and sure in what they were trying to achieve. Clad in orange and black, boasting a trio of players from the Eredivisie, Martin Jol's side played the kind of technically proficient football associated with his homeland. Neat in possession and eager to make their opponents chase, Jol's tactical mantra was worlds apart from the more physical approach Pardew was trying, and failing, to implement.
As a consequence of their tactical superiority, Fulham remained comfortable for large parts of the game. Unwilling to commit forward in any great number, Dimitar Berbatov played a lonesome game of cat and mouse with Newcastle's centre backs with little gained. He seemed frustrated by Fulham's lack of desire to attack, and midway through the second half visibly urged his team-mates forwards.
Fading in and out of the game, like an artist returning to an unfinished painting, the Bulgarian was afforded just one chance: a point-blank header that Tim Krul fantastically turned over the bar to keep the sides level. Keen for a draw that would take them to the much coveted 40-point mark, Fulham's intentions were typified by the decision to keep all 11 men in the box when defending corners.
Yet still they fashioned chances. Hugo Rodallega will regret not laying the ball back for Damien Duff, just as John Arne Riise was made to rue his error in failing to square a pass to Berbatov - not least by the forward himself. Not wanting to engage in hyperbole, Jol dismissed claims his players were "devastated", insisting they were merely "disappointed" after holding out until the final moments.
Now comfortably ensconced in mid-table, the challenge for Jol is to give Fulham's final seven games meaning as they play out the season neither battling relegation nor fighting for Europe. For Pardew, meanwhile, a vital three points means attention can now turn from their relegation battle to Thursday night and the visit of Benfica, daring to dream once more of European glory with the comfort of knowing they have taken a big step towards domestic safety.
Man of the match: Papiss Cisse. Though frustrating at times, the striker's quality cannot be disputed. Able to provide the kind of decisive contributions that have, for the most part, kept genuine worries of relegation at bay, the striker is now also benefiting from being the main attraction after the sale of Demba Ba. Still lacking consistent supply lines, if Newcastle can secure high quality wide players during the summer, Cisse could very easily break the 20-goal mark next season.
Fulham verdict: A solid defensive display for 89 minutes counts for little as they depart Tyneside empty-handed. Although they were limited in their attacking intent, they were still able to carve out some decent chances. However, they lack pace on the flanks, and would be wise to look for an upgrade in central midfield. The veteran Giorgos Karagounis is competent but lacks the dynamism required to drive a side forward. Unlikely to gain that quality when Steve Sidwell returns from suspension, the close season's top priority should be finding a player who can contribute goals from the middle of the park, with the pair that started at St James' having contributed just one between them this season.
Newcastle verdict: Pardew may have been correct in citing fatigue from a mid-week jaunt to Lisbon, but his tactics could also do with an upgrade. While options are lacking from the bench, his go-to move of introducing Shola Ameobi in the final throes is becoming old hat. Although it is admirable to see him give opportunities to a youngster like Adam Campbell, Newcastle can occasionally seem all too predictable. Regardless, credit must go to the Magpies for recovering from Davide Santon's unfortunate early injury. Potential signing: Rumours abound that Toulouse full-back Cheikh M'Bengue was taking in the game and could be set for a summer switch to Newcastle.