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.