By the time there were 30 minutes on the clock today, my major hope was that we would salvage some of the goal difference we won on opening day. We did … just. The post-Dembélé Era began on the Boleyn ground for a “lunchtime” [read 0645] match against our bogey team. I am confident that we will look better than we did today. I am also confident that West Ham will not.
Their first goal came with barely 50 seconds on the clock. Kevin Nolan made a fortuitous connection with a knock down by the excellent Ricardo Vaz Te and Schwarzer could do nothing but pick the ball out of his net. I say “fortuitous” because Nolan spent the rest of the match swinging and missing at much easier chances. Vaz Te’s combination of speed, skill, and aggression would trouble Fulham’s somewhat panic-stricken defense all day. He was, without a doubt, the best player on the pitch. He had a complete stormer.
Fulham? Not so much. Despite the fact that the back four + Schwarzer were the only unit untouched by injury or transfer, they spent much of the match looking as if they’d only just met in the dressing room. Riise was back from injury, so Fulham were – arguably – stronger in defense than they were at Old Trafford last weekend. However, despite the fact that West Ham is nowhere near Man United in skill or manpower, our defense proved totally ineffective in controlling the newly promoted Hammers.
Well, what an interesting match that was. Fulham showed parity with United in the first half hour, played like 11 frightened mice in the second half hour, and scared the bejesus out of the hosts in the third. A one-goal defeat was a deserved result, but this match was really about assessing how good we are this early in the season. After summarily dispatching a very poor Norwich side at home, we were at perhaps the worst away venue for anyone fighting for 9th or 10th place.
United were nervous. Their defense looked shaky at times, and it took a brilliant goal by van Persie to bag their equalizer. YES, we were ahead. A clever and well-executed free kick [and how long since I’ve used that phrase?] from Brian Ruiz caught that nervous defense all congregating at the far post. Ruiz slid the ball rapidly sideways and Damian Duff slotted it home. I believe there were barely two minutes on the clock at this time.
Oh, yes, van Persie’s equalizer. The replays show that there may only be three or four other players in the Premier League audacious enough to try the shot, and perhaps only van Persie is capable of converting it. And the fun was on. There were raids upfield by both sides that lasted until the 35th minute when the flashy Japanese midfielder Kagawa was there to put United up after Schwarzer should probably have held rather than punched an earlier shot. Fulham were disconcerted, and it only got worse 5 minutes later when United’s Ninja Turtle headed in their third from a nice cross from Young. Fulham spent the rest of the half in lock-down mode, as if the most positive result from the day’s efforts would be a two-goal defeat.
Bathed in warm summer sunshine, Fulham fought off that “at the beach” feeling to demolish a very poor Norwich side 5-0. The goals went to Petrić, Duff, Petrić, Kacaniklic, and Sidwell (penalty). Schwarzer enjoyed his 141st Premier League clean sheet, and if he had an easier one, at his age he probably can’t remember it.
How poor were Norwich? Very poor. They were easily bossed around in midfield, toothless in attack, and their chief defensive tactic appeared to be maintaining a high line, and then turning and watching Fulham attackers hare towards goal. If England manager Roy Hodgson came to the Cottage to watch Ruddy and Holt, he certainly went away disappointed. Holt commanded some airspace, but did nothing with it, and Ruddy confirmed the absolute truth of England’s weakness in goal. If he can be capped and considered to be part of England’s future, then England is in serious trouble. I'm sure, by the way, that Hodgson didn’t come to watch Fulham, as there wasn’t an Englishman in sight all day until Sidwell came on – as the third substitute – with about seven minutes left. He didn’t have time to do much, but dispatched his penalty very well.
How good were Fulham? Perhaps the better question would be “how aggressive were Fulham.” Fulham took control of the game shortly after kickoff and maintained that control for 90+ minutes. Diarra, Dembélé, and Ruiz commanded the midfield so well that the back four and Tha Big Aussie had very little to do. I think Mark had to make two saves and, in his only action of the first half, fisted away a high cross. There were several players who caught my eye early and never allowed me to look away from them subsequently. Riise screamed down the left wing more in the first half today than he did in any month last season. His aggression and Special K’s trickiness caused Norwich no end of trouble in protecting their right flank. Ruiz still has good feet and a great pass on him, but he’s added something else this season: he is much quicker and is much more difficult to nudge off the ball. I think it’s fair to say that, based on what we saw today, Fulham will lean very heavily on Ruiz and Diarra – the latter playing as close to a perfect game as I’ve seen in many a moon.
Ho-hum, yet another double by the Mighty Whites.
There’s a point to be made that Liverpool purposely fielded a weakened XI against Fulham Tuesday evening, since they have the FA Cup Final on Saturday. And Ian Darke made that very point 273 times during the 90+ minutes of his “commentating.” I'm sure there will be plenty of press decrying Liverpool’s makeshift side, and using this fact to denigrate Fulham’s victory. Truth be told, there was only one side showing any creativity out there and that was Fulham. Despite fielding Kuyt, Carroll, and Maxi, the three most creative players on the pitch were Dembélé, Dempsey, and Kacankifrei. Ably assisted by Danny Murphy who pulled the strings masterfully, Fulham basically played without being under sustained pressure for a moment. And the result? The fact that despite the typical crowd size, the “few Fulham supporters who bothered to make the trip” [this quote again from Darke] could be heard clearly. I especially loved the “Take Me Home, Al Fayed” and Moussa’s song.
Fulham fielded three ex-Reds, with Special K joining Riise and Murphy in the lineup. The young left winger looked very dangerous early on, and it was a neat combination play between him and Dempsey that resulted in the goal. Dempsey put Special K through and, with Pogrebnyak pressuring Liverpool’s defense, Martin Skrtel put into his own net off his shoulder. And that was pretty much that. Liverpool fired off a raft of shots, but the majority of them hit everything nowhere near Mark Schwarzer’s goal. They nearly scored after an unusual gaffe by the Fulham keeper, but Jonjo Shelvey’s weak shot was cleared off the line by the excellent Brede Hangeland.
One thing is certain of Everton in the David Moyes era. If you’re going to get anything at Goodison Park, you’d better be playing the Toffees in the Autumn. And if you’re playing them in the Springtime, you’d better strap on your Kevlar. Everton are always fierce in the second half of the season under the leadership of their Scottish boss.
And so they were today. The team that looked weak and woefully out of form before Christmas has been buoyed by the arrival of three players. First Landon Donovan helped carry them out of their most significant period of poor form. Then Steven Pineaar came back from his exile in North London. And, finally, Nikica Jelavić arrived from cash-strapped Glasgow Rangers and provided them with something they’d been missing all season – a hungry, capable striker. Fresh off a rousing comeback at Old Trafford, Everton clearly looked in the mood today.
Fulham clearly didn’t. Our midfield was a sieve. Our defense was weak and uncertain. And while Everton were knocking it about all over the pitch, Fulham found it difficult to string more than two passes together.
Of all the sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: We didn’t beat Chelsea AGAIN.
There will be many oaths uttered regarding Mark Clattenburg tonight, but you won’t read any of them here. The second I saw Danny go in with both feet, I said “Penalty.” It wasn’t that long ago that we had a right back who made a similar challenge and missed completely, but still got a straight red. My only hope was that our captain would only get a yellow, and as it turned out he didn’t even get that. Yes, Clattenburg made some strange decisions – not the least of which was carding Mireles when Riise fell down two feet from him – but they benefitted us as much as Chelsea.
In the end, Fulham were undone by the lack of a lead striker. As many, including me, have noted, Dempsey plays his best from a deep position. When he’s up front on his own in a 4-5-1 … not so much. As the ever-irritating Steve McManaman pointed out, he holds the ball well, but nobody takes the position that he takes. And so we drew 1-1 in a driving rainstorm in an absorbing match with lots of talking points.
For instance, Kerim Frei started on the left wing against a very good right back. As many, including me, have noted, Frei’s total dependence on his right foot makes him easy to defend. Today … not so much. For most of the first half, our teenaged Swiss winger tortured Ivanovic mercilessly. He turned him inside out and linked brilliantly with a roll-back-the-years John Arne Riise. Fulham had pretty much seized control of the match when – in the last seconds of the half – Danny conceded the penalty that was cooly converted by the loathsome Frank Lampard. If any Chelsea supporters are reading this, I say “loathsome” because – once again – he celebrated the goal by taunting the Fulham fans. I have never seen him score against us when this piss poor behavior wasn’t repeated. He continues to be one of two reasons I’ll never support Chelsea in any endeavor.
Fulham cruised to a famous victory today in front of nearly 30,000 in the Reebok Stadium, totally dominating a desperate Bolton Wanderers side. The three-goal defeat flattered Bolton, as 0-6 would have been a better reflection of the difference in quality and organization between the two sides. Clint Dempsey got his 14th and 15th league goals of the season – keeping him in the top five on the scoring charts and eclipsing Louis Saha as Fulham’s single-season scoring leader in the Premier League – followed by a first-ever goal for the impressive Mamahadou Diarra.
Bereft of a healthy striker – again – Fulham started with Dempsey and Ruiz up front. Kacaniklik started on the left and, along with Diarra, were the only two changes from the XI that started against Norwich. Pogrebnyak’s ankle injury persisted and Danny Murphy was, perhaps, rested for Monday’s match against Chelsea. In any case, neither were on the substitute’s bench.
Despite the strong commitment of Petrov, Reo-Coker, and Ricketts, Fulham dominated the first half – in reality if not statistically. Bolton’s tendency to fall back en masse whenever Fulham gained control in and around our penalty area, gave the defense plenty of time to stroll forward. These strolls often ended in defense splitting passes generally through the middle of the pitch. The presence of Special K and Damian Duff on the wings kept Bolton’s defense spread thin, and Dempsey and Ruiz exploited those gaps with the assistance of great passing from Dembélé, Diarra, and Hangeland.
Well, there’s not much one could fault our defense or our defensive mids for today. Of course, there was the Diarra mess-up followed by the Hangeland comedy act shortly thereafter, but this was VERY early in the match. Generally speaking, Fulham contained the United attack – only three wingers on the pitch today – and the goal they did give up had a bit of the old pinball wizardry about it.
Of course, I DO have a quibble or two. One is “Why Diarra instead of Murphy?” Murphy has been in Man U’s heads for more than a decade – especially at Old Trafford. He is also the core of our attacking creativity. Diarra played well, please don’t get me wrong, but if we’re going to bench Danny for an away match, why in the world would it be at Old Trafford? As it was, Oh Captain Our Captain came on long enough to make two brilliant passes that might have resulted in goals, as well as earning a penalty in the dying minutes that was ignored by the young referee.
Another quibble is “Why Frei?” or more appropriately “Why Frei on the LEFT wing?” I'm not even certain he uses his left foot to stand on. Upon receiving the ball, the pacy youngster immediately cut inside and passed backwards time after time after time. In this way he contributed nothing to the attack, while simultaneously leaving his wing wide open for Rafael to venture forward. Since Riise already had his hands full with Valencia – for my money the best winger in the game right now – the added attacking threat of United’s Own Ninja Turtle meant that the Red Devils owned the left side of our defense for 90+ minutes. And this was even with Riise having a handy match.