Fulham vs Stoke – By the skin of our teeth

A few weeks had passed since the 0-0 Thriller at Carrow Road and many of us arrived at the Cottage bright and early on Saturday anticipating a game that would be more representative of the Six Nations than the Premier League given our visitors rough and ready approach to long ball football. It would also most likely be the biggest test to date for our newly established Hangeland & Senderos partnership seeing that the majority of Stoke’s goals have come from Set pieces and their aerial threat.

Sacha Riether returned to full back alongside Dejagah on the right with Karagounis and Sidwell in the middle of the park. Despite some encouraging performances in recent weeks Rodallega was left on the bench with Berbatov preferred as a loan forward and Ruiz supporting. As half of the 1st team squad have contracts expiring within 6 months I am sure we were all delighted to see Damien Duff have his contract extended and can only hope it is one of many in the near future. Despite starting against Norwich there was no place in the squad at all for loanee Emanuel Frimpong.

Having been denied a free pie, I had barely reached my seat in the Hammersmith when Stoke had arguably their best chance of the half. Thankfully the early substitution of Etherington seemed to leave our opposition with very little in the way of delivery to Crouch and disrupted any plan to apply early pressure.

Brek Shea who replaced him on the left hand side appeared to be more of an Eddie Johnson level MLS player than a Brian McBride. It was no coincidence then that we looked brightest in the first half down our right flank with Dejagah and Riether linking up well and creating a number of slick interchanges of passing. Following a free kick won in the same area Ruiz attempted to end his goal drought with his hand instead of his head and slapped the ball in to the back of the net even though with better positioning he could have given us the lead within 10 minutes rather than the yellow card he was issued.

What followed in the first half was a pretty solid display from Fulham with some nice passing moves in what were certainly more advanced areas than a fortnight back but still lacking that final cutting edge. Both Berbatov and Ruiz seemed to be holding a higher line unlike in recent weeks where both seemed to harbour more of an ambition to play Defensive Midfield. However they seemed to play in each other’s pockets for most of the half and Stoke’s back four were rarely stretched or troubled by the movements,  or lack of , in and around the box.

Following the accidental Berbatov elbow on Nzonzi , The latter was then seen striking Ruiz in the face a few moments later which should have resulted in a straight red card. I can only think that this was either a case of mistaken identity following the original incident or that Nzonzi felt so strongly about Bryan’s attempted hand ball earlier in the game that he felt a need to dish out his own form of punishment.

Just as I started to re consider an attempt to get my free pie, Berbatov decided that it was time to show us another glimpse of just why we persist with his week in week out hands on hips general sense of disgust for the players around him and promptly produced a volley of the highest quality. Again the chance was made on the right with Dejagah and Riether combining only for the initial header away to drop to Berbatov and for him to riffle past Begovic. It was no more than we deserved for a first half performance that we dominated in terms of possession although producing little in the way of chances other than a Karagounis free kick and the “Hand of Bryan”.

Many had billed this as a must win game and with it being one of the easier home fixtures left in the season nothing less than 3 points would do if we were to be able to at least enjoy QPR’s predicament for a few weeks. Of course with Fulham nothing is straight forward and we all knew that it wouldn’t be an early 2nd goal that would settle the crowds nerves. Stoke obviously would look to try and salvage something and our defence who had been relatively unchallenged up to this point would be a lot busier as the game went on. The signs were ominus as little as 5 minutes after the restart when Senderos, who in fairness has looked a lot more assured in recent weeks, showed glimpses of his past offences when instead of getting rid he waited for Schwarzer  and Crouch nipped in between only to be denied an equaliser.

As the half progressed we seemed to invite more and more pressure with that feeling of the inevitable scrappy equalizer hanging over us and the atmosphere becoming subdued for large periods.

Sitting in the Hammersmith end is always better in the second half for obvious reasons. In turn it means that anything offered by our guests in attack at the other end can seem painfully far away and difficult to judge while leaving you feeling helpless every time they go forward. It was hard to see the Dejagah handball that lead to the Stoke Penalty but upon seeing Walters step up to take the kick I cast my mind back to a few weeks ago when he had missed one on the same day as netting 2 own goals. The fact that he is in the dream team was little consolation but had he converted it I suppose it was the smallest of silver linings. It was only after the great save from Schwarzer that I remarked to a friend that this was in fact a double bluff on my part as I always had faith in my Dream team goalkeeper to keep a clean sheet…

Stoke did continue to press but it felt like today was our day. Ruiz made a nice little run in the last 15 minutes although the square ball was just out of reach for Berbatov to convert.

Our Bulgarian friend received the applause that his match winner had warranted when he was substituted late on. Jol seemingly waiting until he was as far away from the bench as possible, holding the ball in the corner before replacing him with Petric who had to wait a good 90 seconds for Dimitar to reach him.

The final whistle could not come soon enough and while we had moved another 3 points closer to safety it did not exactly feel like a re assuring victory. A cameo from Emmanuelson reminded us that we did actually make a few acquisitions in January even though none appear to be staking a claim for a regular starting place.

The next few months are going to be a scrap and the sooner we reach 40 points the better. We showed some signs of the intricate passing we can play at our best but with little in the way of a cutting edge. It may well be another few flashes of genius from Berbatov that keep us mid table for the remainder of the season but in the long term we need to offer more. There are not many games left at the Cottage that are going to be as comfortable as Saturday should have been and we are going to have to consider winning another away game this season before we can relax.

COYW

Norwich vs Fulham Review – One Point Closer to Safety

Most of us have come to terms with the fact that as a club we don’t  receive an overwhelming amount of coverage from the various media outlets but upon departing Carrow Road on Saturday it would be safe to say that we all fully expected to be last on Match of the day. In fact while making my way back to the station I was struggling to imagine exactly what would have been deemed worthy of making the highlights reel and if they would even show us at all.

In a similar fashion to the game at the Etihad a few weeks back the only real attempt on goal we mustered came from Sidwell in what turned out to be a fairly routine save for Bunn in the Norwich goal. The home team didn’t exactly give Schwarzer a great deal to do either. The best chance came from the latest of their many ex Leeds United contingent when Becchio hit one first time after 10 minutes. Norwich certainly had a lot of possession but much like ourselves seemed to lack any real potency in the final third. It seemed as though the late omission of Grant Holt from the forward line had somehow disrupted the game plan although in one of the few positives to take out of the game it would be debatable how effective he would have been anyway given the form of the new and improved Philippe Senderos.

A point away from home is never something to moan about especially given our well publicised lack of ability to perform away from the Cottage. Today was a game that in recent years we would have more than likely thrown away with a scrappy goal just after half time. In the end we nearly did in the last minute when a hoof in to the box saw new Norwich signing Kei Kamara, who surprisingly has never actually played for Leeds, challenge Schwarzer only for the ball only to go well wide.

We were treated to seeing a number of our new signings from the start on Saturday mainly due to “Illness” to both Reither and Baird. Manelov started at right back and Frimpong took up a spot in the centre of Midfield. I have heard a number of sources describe Manelov as “The worst Defender in the Eredivisie” which on Saturday’s performance does seem a little harsh. He did get turned inside out for the early Becchio chance but in fairness the rest of the game he looked solid.

The prospect of seeing Bryan Ruiz after a number of transatlantic flights was somewhat worrying given that his recent form can draw many similarities to that of someone suffering from jet lag. The centre midfield has worked hard lately and any positive result has always come from the tireless running of Sidwell and Karagounis. While Frimpong did not exactly set the world alight on Saturday he didn’t make any particular mistakes and worked hard for the cause. Given a few more games hopefully he will grow in confidence and prove a valuable asset in offering cover for what is one of the weakest areas in the squad in terms of depth.

Recently we have started to look good on  the break which is in no small part down to Rodallega holding a high line and forcing Berbatov to push on in support. Today it seemed as though we had taken a few steps back, Quite literally in Berbatov’s case. Once again he was to be found loitering around the centre midfield and when receiving the ball slowed down any potential move allowing Norwich to get bodies back and inevitably prevent us from offering a threat to Bunn’s goal. Mladen Petric replaced Hugo with about 15 minutes left although I am tempted to say that that he would have been more effective if he had replaced Berbatov instead of just substituting one isolated forward for another. Ruiz to be fair was fairly consistent with his recent performances and was no worse for all the travelling. Urby was given a 25 minute cameo when he replaced Frimpong and again showed signs that he could be a decent acquisition but whether or not he will achieve that potential in the short time that he is with us is debatable.

While Saturday’s fixture saw the reverse of our first game of the season, no one was expecting another goal glut but Norwich were certainly there for the taking. Despite another sub par performance had we fashioned a few more chances it was not unforeseeable to think we could have been returning home with all 3 points. We need four more victories to reach that 40 point mark and if we were going to add to our away points haul then today was probably as good a chance as any. We now have a couple of weeks to prepare for what is essentially a must win game at home to Stoke where the new Hangeland-Senderos partnership will likely face their toughest challenge yet. The only way our new signings are going to be effective is with game time so it is debatable whether much will have changed in that department in the space of a fortnight.  Lets not forget that in recent years our best performances have been built on a solid back four and the sooner we find some consistency in our choice of defenders the better. We can only hope that Jol can come up with a solution to the lack of potency going forward and somehow convince Dimitar that despite our lack of depth in Midfield we do not need him to fill in.

Fulham vs Manchester United – United We Stand

It would be fair to say that a lot has changed In the week since we last took to the field against tonight’s opponents. As a club we now find our self reportedly “debt free” even if this was not necessarily reflected in our midweek transfer activities. Our noisy neighbours were more than happy to shell out a small fortune on new acquisitions, perhaps out of desperation given their current predicament but something still makes me proud about the way we go about our business. We may not have replaced a number of players, we may have an ageing squad and sometimes we may even fail to realise that we are allowed to sign people who haven’t played against us, but we keep a tight wage structure and remain dignified in the way we conduct ourselves. I am not saying that I wouldn’t want us to spend more money but while our recent form has been below par, we are not exactly in a desperate position and don’t need to bring just anyone in if “the right players” as Jol would put it, are not available.

Our cause is not helped by the fact that when in the past we have spent money, the players coming in (Marlet/Johnson) have not exactly set the world on fire. Some would argue that Bryan Ruiz is rapidly slipping in to this bracket but tonight in the absence of Berbatov he had the chance to prove us wrong.

The team news was not exactly encouraging with Sidwell also out injured. None of the new “signings” made it in to the starting XI while United in contrast opted with Rooney and Van Persie to start. In light of solid performances mid week both Senderos and Riise kept their places with Baird and Dejagah also coming in. On the positive side the atmosphere around the ground had improved and the win against West Ham left us feeling that the pressure was perhaps off for tonight in terms of expectations.

Wednesday had seen Rodallega prove the difference with his high line and direct approach. It had brought Berbatov in to the game, forcing him to push forward to support and get involved in a counter attacking style of football. Ruiz had the same opportunity tonight and if we were to take anything from the game then he would need to get close to Rodallega.

The first few minutes were promising  with Ruiz holding a higher line but as the half went on Rodallega seemed fairly isolated. One of the few times he did decide to gamble Ruiz came close to scoring and struck the post in the process. United took a while to settle but soon found their rhythm. Schwarzer showed excellent handling throughout and at times the biggest threat to his goal seemed to be our captain. Not satisfied by testing his keeper’s reactions with a header from a corner, Hangeland then managed to hit his own crossbar. It felt as though a United goal was imminent for much of the game with most of it being played in our half and De Gea having little to deal with other than a quite spectacular attempt by the “destined never to score again” John Arne Riise.

With a few minutes before half time and many of us debating between a bovril or a beer, we experienced one of those great moments in football that provokes everyone in the stadium to spontaneously cheer in unison .  The “debt free” status clearly wasn’t extended to utilities and the flood lights left everyone in the dark for a good ten minutes. The only other incidents that bring such togetherness are injuries to referees and streakers.  The lights were back just as Sir Alex Ferguson and his entourage of back room staff had reached the tunnel following the long walk from the dugout. Luckily the disruption did little to break the deadlock and we went in level at half time.

The second half initially followed a fairly similar pattern to that of the first with most of the possession and pressure coming from our visitors with Fulham offering the occasional warning sign on the break. Baird worked tirelessly tonight and his willingness to sit in front of the back four allowed Karagounis to get involved further forward.  Dejagah again looked lively and was the architect of most of our promising breaks. Ruiz  showed glimpes of composure on the ball followed by a flurry of wayward passes while being caught in possession far to often.

There was a point with about 20 minutes to go where we battled for every ball and got it in to some dangerous areas. New signing Emanuelson replaced the tiring Karagounis but as a player who can allegedly play so many positions it was hard to work out exactly what his role would be.  One of our better spells of the match was quickly followed by the predictable sucker punch from United and Rooney to produce the match winner. Perhaps Senderos and Riether could have done better but it would be harsh to place blame on two players who for most of the match performed amicably. While Hangeland struggled in the first half Senderos produced one of his most assured performances in a white shirt tonight and could even have earned us a point late on.

Petric replaced Dejagah and for the remainder of the game we pushed our opponents all the way. Headers cleared off the line and the roar of the Hammersmith end though were not enough to earn a point and while Hernandez squandered a chance to add a second we showed a fighting spirit that was not evident this time last week.

Leaving the Cottage after a loss is never a particularly pleasant experience. The long walk through Bishop’s park to a predictably packed Putney Bridge Station can make you question why we bother in the first place. Tonight though it didn’t feel like a chore and bar another poor performance from Ruiz the rest of what was a fairly understrength Fulham team had exceeded our expectations.

A few weeks ago there were a lot of remarks around the passion and dedication of Karagounis when compared to a lot of others around him. He lasted 60 minutes tonight but the work rate he has brought seems to be infectious. Dejagah and Baird in particular never stopped running while Rodallega worked hard in what was at times a thankless task. If we continue to perform at such a level against teams who don’t have a strike force that costs more than our entire squad then we will soon find ourselves in the wonderful world of mid table obscurity.

Fulham vs West Ham: Morale Booster

One could be forgiven for feeling a little pessimistic upon arrival at The Cottage on Wednesday evening. Fulham have won just 1 of the last 12 against West Ham in the league and memories of the performance at Upton Park earlier in the season did little to inspire confidence. Following the defeat at Old Trafford and a succession of performances lacking in any real attacking threat, we set up with Saturday’s goalscorer Aaron Hughes on the bench and Senderos preferred alongside Hangeland in what we can only presume was an attempt to counteract the aerial threat of Carroll & Carlton Cole. Having caused us so many problems back in August I don’t think I would be wrong in saying that most of us were relieved to hear that Allardyce had decided to go with Chamakh from the start. More significantly for Fulham, Rodallega started in support of Berbatov with Ruiz pushed back into midfield. New signing Emmanuel Frimpong was named as a substitute alongside long-term absentee Simon Davies.

Craven Cottage has not been the fortress we are used to this season and our East London neighbours seemed in a particularly confident mood in the build up to the fixture. According to the ever popular Mark Lawrenson “Fulham have become Easy to beat” but what became immediately apparent in the first few minutes on Wednesday was that with Rodallega sitting on the last defender and giving Fulham a much needed out ball, we actually looked fairly competent on the break. We are used to seeing Berbatov & Ruiz play up top only to spend most of the game in and around the centre circle, forcing the likes of Sidwell and Karagounis to play short give and go passes without actually gaining any ground in the process. Hugo’s advanced position encouraged Berbatov to hold a higher line and in turn created some much needed space between our midfield and forwards.

In what perhaps seemed something of a novelty to Fulham fans of late, a Damien Duff free kick on 10 minutes saw no less than 3 different men in white shirts attack the ball with Berbatov stealing in at the back post to give us an early lead, despite perhaps appearing to be offside when the ball was played. A few sheepish looks at the referee’s assistant followed before celebrating his birthday goal.

A positive start had the Hammersmith in fine voice but what followed was a period of West Ham pressure mainly through Matt Jarvis on the left although Riether did well to limit the supply to Chamakh and Nolan. We offered the occasional threat including a solo effort from Berbatov and the tireless running of Rodallega with his willingness not to drop to deep meant that our counter attacking game for once was relatively effective. I don’t think it is harsh to say that Rodallega is not a natural forward but the fact that he was willing to be so direct and provide an option for the midfield really made the difference tonight. On a number of occasions this season we have cursed his name for seemingly wanting to shoot from everywhere but given our lack of efforts in recent games, tonight he was a breath of fresh air.

One of the most frustrating things about Fulham recently has been Bryan Ruiz. He is capable of moments of brilliance like the ball played to Rodallega in the final few minutes of the first half but consistently finds himself caught in possession. He was not helped by the performance of Mohamed Diame who was without doubt our visitors man of the match. On the day before the transfer window closes he produced a “come and get me” performance reminiscent of what we saw from Dembele at Old Trafford in August. The fact that we still found ourselves 1-0 up at the break was testament to the work rate and tackling of Sidwell and Karagounis.

At the weekend I remarked that one of the most painful times for any Fulham fan is the first 10 minutes after half time. It seems to be a period where we are mentally still in the changing rooms and regularly cost us goals. On Saturday we were 3-0 down and effectively out of the cup!  Tonight we lasted just the 2 minutes before Nolan equalised. Berbatov seemed to have his mind on other things, perhaps the post match cigar and a slice of birthday cake.

This however was a different Fulham team , We showed the ability to bypass the midfield and move forward with pace. We went straight up the other end and restored the one goal lead. Rodallega getting the reward for his hard work on the end of another fantastic Duff delivery.

The introduction of Cole & Carroll saw Hangeland & Senderos deal with everything West Ham threw at us. The latter is not always the most popular addition to the first team amongst fans and despite a few hesitations and slip-ups it would be fair to say that it was certainly one of his better performances. Riise looked solid following his return to the team and as already mentioned, Riether justified why we should be looking to make the move a permanent one as soon as possible.

In the same way that the introduction of Baird seemed to invite pressure, the substitution that saw Dejagah replace Ruiz changed the balance in our favour. Dejagah was influential in the creation of the third goal showing intelligence to hold the ball in the corner before laying it off.

By no means was the performance anything to write home about, we spent a lot of time on the back foot with significantly less possession than we achieved against both Manchester clubs. The times we did have the ball though saw us get it forward quickly, run at defenders and generally take a more direct route to goal. Duff provided a touch of quality with both assists but the performance of Rodallega was the match winner. Ironically it was he who seemed to bring Berbatov in to the game.

Unless we are unbelievably “inventive” in the last day of the transfer window I wouldn’t expect too much from Saturday. We are all hoping for a few new additions but at least tonight we showed that we are not “easy to beat” and are guaranteed not to be last on MOTD on Saturday.