Jeez, I hope so. Today Fulham traveled up to Liverpool to put on a lackluster, soulless display in front of 44,000 paying customers and a national AND international television audience. The entire world watched as a host of faulty replicants disguised as professional footballers dressed themselves in black and white and called themselves Fulham Football Club. This is the only explanation that makes sense to me. Certainly the players we’ve watched all season would have rebounded from a deplorable display last weekend at QPR by pulling up their big girl panties and going to Anfield with fire in their bellies and steel in their eyes. Instead … .
Instead we played at ½ speed for the entire match, didn’t create space for attacks, forgot that “move” is a key component in “pass and move,” and made Stuart Downing look like the second coming of George Best.
41,000+ individuals suffered through 90 minutes of completely ineffective football at Stamford Bridge Wednesday evening, shivering in the cold, while a couple of Texans sat splitting a pizza and drinking some pretty awesome craft beer. I was SO glad to be one of the two rather than one of the 41,000+.
Fulham played the same lackluster, non-aggressive, non-creative first 75 minutes that they played against Stoke on the weekend. Luckily, however, Chelsea’s center forward is Torres and NOT Crouch, and so The Mighty Whites escaped with a hardly-deserved 0-0. The legendary Italian and Italian-trained coaches – Sir Roy Hodgson being among them – will tell you that the perfect game of football has to end 0-0. Today was proof, however, that the corollary is NOT necessarily true.
Fulham traveled to Stoke today to play in the outdoor carwash known as The Britannia Stadium. With injuries to two attacking players, a makeshift midfield, and a defensive lineup that did not feature our best defender, I suppose a 1-0 defeat was to be expected. But I always expect more when Berbatov is on the pitch, and so I was bitterly disappointed with the result.
Stoke City are no walk in the park at the best of times. Composed – as they are – of power forwards and middle linebackers, and playing – as they do – on a green postage stamp slightly larger than a tennis court, it is natural for them to play a physical and destructive game. Today, they did what came naturally. They hacked, shoved, tripped, and elbowed the livelong day. If there was a surprise in the score, it was that the yellow card result was 1-1. Both cards were well deserved, but there should have been at least three more yellows awarded to City. Sigh. Well, what can you expect of a side whose most technically brilliant and creative players are Peter Crouch, Charlie Adam, and Ryan Shawcross.
Fulham’s makeshift midfield included Dejagah and Karagounis, each of whom impressed and depressed in equal measure. One had to admire Dejagah’s consistency in finding attacking space and despair at a first touch so reminiscent of Eddie Johnson. Karagounis played very well, except for the 3 or 4 times he gave the ball away when not under pressure.
A few seasons back, Arsenal came to Craven Cottage and put a chubby 18-year-old Italian between the sticks. For 90 minutes he put on a display that ranks among the very best I’ve ever seen. He stopped seven shots that, had they been against any other Arsenal goalkeeper, would have been Fulham goals. Andrew Johnson should have had three and Clint Dempsey two, but for the Herculean efforts of the guy I called “that Fat Italian Kid.” Late in the match, van Persie came in and, with his first touch, got the only goal. What a day that was for Vito Mannone. What a day today WASN’T for Vito Mannone.
But what a day for the fans! Fulham started the match looking cool and calm, every bit the equal of their hosts. Although Berbatov and Ruiz looked the more dangerous pairing, it was Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski who turned that danger into goals. The Frenchman with a very easy goal in the 11th, and the German with the Polish name an equally soft effort in the 23rd. And, really, that should have been that. Despite the fact that we’re equal with Arsenal on points, and despite the fact that we score more goals than 15 sides in the league, we are Fulham and Arsenal are Arsenal. My only hope at this point was that we could keep at least SOME of our +5 goal difference. Most years, two goals down to a “top club” inside a half hour is game over.
Yeah, but we have Dimitar Berbatov and he, and his henchman Bryan Ruiz, weren’t about to allow the Whites to go quietly. Five minutes after Kieran Richardson apparently pulled a hamstring and had to go off in favor of Kacaniklic, we pulled one back. After some pressure down the right wing by the classy Ashkan Dejagah, Fulham won a corner. Ruiz took it and Berbatov nodded it in. 2-1. One of the great skills of goal scorers is the ability to find attacking space in a crowded penalty area. McBride was great at this, Gera also had this skill in abundance. Berbatov is the master at it. And so, just before the 30 minute mark, we were only one goal down.
Of course, the problem is that I'm NOT a neutral, and so I'm a bit frustrated. Fulham traveled to winless Reading and got the point that most expected. At half-time, I’d have been thrilled with that one point, but the barrage of free kicks and corner kicks we faced when a goal up late in the match made me feel as if we were lucky to get what we did.
There was never any doubt throughout the 94 minutes that Fulham had the better XI on the pitch. There was also little doubt that we weren’t playing well enough to win for most of the afternoon. Neither were Reading, truth be told. The difference is that they were there for the taking and we didn’t finish the job. What the difference should have been is that we had the best player on the pitch for the entire match and, had we capitalized on that indisputable fact, we’d have put the match away by half-time.
The first half was very scrappy. The vast majority of Fulham’s attacks were up our left side. The problem with that is that this was where Richardson was playing. I rate this guy a lot, but Berbatov fed him in attacking situations a half-dozen times in the first 45 and I can’t remember a single decent cross coming from them. I found myself – as did others in the FulhamUSA.com chatroom – crying for Kacaniklic and Dejagah. Reading had a few chances to score in the first half and it was only a combination of poor marksmanship and poor luck that kept them off the scoreboard. When their goal came, it was brilliant and unstoppable. From a dead ball situation [recurring theme alert], Reading passed the ball around a few times until it fell to Leighterwood who deposited a screamer into the top right corner. We pressed pretty hard after that, but we never really looked like equalizing.
They say that goals change games. Well, so do substitutions, and our match changed in the 58th minute when Ruiz came on for the profligate Rodallega. I was happy to see Bryan, but had doubts about how he’d fit in. Berbatov can do many things, but I don’t think he’s at his best as the 1 in a 4-5-1. So imagine my surprise when he stayed up front with Ruiz as his partner. And boy did it pay dividends immediately. From this point until the 89th minute, Fulham were clearly the better side.
It was Bryan who equalized with a goal as stunning as Reading’s first – a screamer into the top right. Last season his only two goals were goal-of-the-season candidates. The same is true for his first this season. As soon as we equalized, two minutes after Ruiz arrived on the pitch, Fulham looked for nothing but three points. The second goal came 17 minutes later on yet another near post run by Baird. Unlike last week’s effort, this corner was converted with a header. Baird has obviously been watching old film of Carlos Bocanegra. Fulham were up 2-1, and playing brilliant football. Unfortunately, Baird took a knock in the goal celebration and had to be replaced by Sidwell.
Reading equalized in a pin-ball like goalmouth scramble ten minutes later, and 2-2 looked like the ultimate result until the brilliance that is Dimitar Berbatov stepped forward. Our number 9 was limping most of the match and looked very tired, but in the 88th minute he had time to tie his shoelaces and autograph the ball before beating McCarthy. Two minutes left. We’re up 3-2. What could go wrong?
Well, what happened is that we began giving away corners and free kicks on the outskirts of our penalty area. One of the free kicks – after a foul by the otherwise brilliant Sascha Riether – resulted in yet another pinball lottery AND the final equalizer in the 90th minute. While I'm certain that Fulham wanted to get the SEVENTH goal in the four minutes of injury time, we barely got out of our own half. One or two more goalmouth scrambles and 3-3 was the final result. It was a fair result in the end for two reasons: (1) Neither side played poorly enough to lose. (2) Neither side played well enough to win. A point on the road is a point on the road, I guess.
Full marks for the play of Riether, Riise, Hughes, Diarra, Duff, and – especially – Berbatov. Baird, Hangeland, and Schwarzer had uneven performances throughout, and the less said about Rodallega and Richardson the better. Our subs were brilliant. Ruiz brought the match to life, Dejagah looked a serious threat again, and Sidwell had a hand in Berbatov’s goal. I'm looking forward to seeing the Berbatov/Ruiz pairing in the future. Each is incredibly creative. Each has good pitch awareness. Each has an eye for a promising pass, and each can finish. Now if we can just get some service from the left wing.
Reading? It’s going to be a long season for them. Two of their three goals were on the lucky side, they have an unconvincing goalkeeper, and the strike pair we saw today seems an odd couple. A better team on the day would have dismantled them in the first 30 minutes.
HatterDon’s Man of the Match was bouncing back and forth between Riether, Berbatov, and Hughes, but the winner is the Fulham Travelers. I have never heard you so loud for so long, and there is no doubt in my Texan mind that you had a hand in all three of our goals. Well done.
Next up? Oh, goodness. I’ll worry about that later. COYW.
Early in the match, announcer Paul Walsh said about Fulham's parity with the Man City of the past, “that’s before they struck oil … or rather, before oil struck them.” A clever remark, but an apt one. We were like the Bailey Savings and Loan [It’s a Wonderful Life reference] against the House of Rothschild. Exaggerating? Their SUBS were Dzeko, Balotelli, and Nasri for goodness sake.
And so we lost 1-2. I expected us to lose, but overall I was pleased at what I saw today. For the first half-hour or so of the match, we looked a good match-up for the billionaires. Rodallega and Ruiz looked especially sharp, and we were attacking strongly on both wings. The seriously outgunned central midfield was holding strong, and the defense was neat and tidy. Only Petrić seemed to be out of sorts and so, naturally, he scored.
Riise nutmegged Zabaleta and the defender lifted his arm to restrain our left back. It was on the edge of the penalty area, and most refs – if they bothered to call it a foul at all – would have given a free kick just outside the box. Referee Halsey [who once called two penalties in our favor against Tottenham in the FA Cup] pointed to the spot and Petrić put it away easily, although he was a bit lucky. Had Hart not moved at all he could have caught it in both hands. So it was 1-0 in the 9th minute.
Yes, I know. Fulham are not good on the road. Yes, Fulham suffer against mediocre teams. Yes, yes, yes. The truth is, of course, that Fulham have been very capable of taking points at the DW Stadium in England’s northwest. And, except for stoppage time, looked comfortably the better team on display today.
Roberto Martinez is one of my most favorite managers. With very little in the way of a budget, he doesn’t go the grizzled-veteran-route-one route. Instead, his teams play good football, quality football, that can frighten any side – witness the seven matches won of their last nine last season. And his side looked bright today at times. Luckily, for Fulham, their good passing never included the “last pass.”
There was plenty of pleasing football from both sides early on. Most of the action in both directions was down Fulham’s right wing for the first half hour or so. Duff and Riether engineered much of Fulham’s early pressure. And there was plenty of early pressure. Fulham were playing like a side that had dismantled a very good WBA last weekend – NOT like a side hoping for a 0-0. And Fulham looked like scoring almost from the off.
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.