Fulham So Close to Stealing a Point at St. James’s
If there is a team that Fulham can feel confident playing away, it’s Newcastle United. If there’s a team that Newcastle do NOT want to play with relegation in the conversation, it’s Fulham. Add these two sentences to one pointing out that Fulham are in the best form in three seasons, and you figure that the Barcodes are going to be in for long day. And they were.
Fulham started calmly and efficiently – challenging everywhere on the pitch and stringing together passes in the double digits. Berbatov, who has been in choice form himself, had Fulham’s and the game’s first opportunity to score after 5 minutes. He slapped a shot with the outside of his right boot that beat the keeper but not the cross bar. Fulham had a couple of other “almost” chances for a goal, both involving Berbatov. The first came from a cross from Riether that only a single toe of an extended boot stopped from rolling to our unmarked striker. Another chance came with a cross from Duff that looked to be cleared by a Newcastle defender. Berbatov saw this and moved quickly to challenge for the second ball, only to see the defender miss it and the ball fall exactly where he’d been standing.
And then there was the goalmouth scramble that resulted in a close-in save from a stabbed effort by Manolev. Mostly, though, and especially in the second half, the story was about wasted opportunity after wasted opportunity for Newcastle. Cisse and Gouffran were especially profligate. Eventually, 3 or so minutes into 5 minutes of injury time, Cisse finally converted from close range and the match was settled. Fulham’s unbeaten run is over.
Fulham’s run of good play is NOT over. The team in Godawful Orange dominated the midfield and played the more stylish football. From the beginning of the match, Newcastle were the more physical side. Cisse had no fewer than four fouls called for “clattering a Fulham player from behind” in the first 10 minutes, and committed at least three more fouls before finally getting a yellow card – for leaping into a crowd of happy Geordies.
What Newcastle did not do well was to capitalize on occasional lapses from Fulham’s midfield and defense. The final shot total was 28-5 in favor of The Barcodes, with the shot-on-target total reading 5-2. On another day, Berbatov converts all of his chances and Fulham win 0-3. On another day, Schwarzer, Hangeland, Riise, and the woodwork DON’T combine to keep Newcastle scoreless for 93 minutes. It was a fair result, and there was nothing in Fulham’s play that should upset any of their supporters – but you KNOW that there will be plenty of fingers pointed in the cyber world.
Fulham began the match with two new starters – Stanislav Manolev, who the announcer kept saying was making his league debut [ignoring the fact that he’d already done that down the road a piece] and Eyong (Brian) Enoh. Manolev did fairly well on the right side of midfield, but he was replacing Fulham’s most improved AND improving player, Ashkan Dejagah, and so looked substandard by comparison. He did NOT hurt the team at all, but his play wasn’t of as high a level as that of Enoh who was replacing the suspended Steve Sidwell. He was an excellent contributor to Fulham’s first half domination and anchored the midfield well. He left with an injury five minutes into the second half, and Fulham never got control of the match thereafter. Emmanuel Frimpong came on to replace him and played well enough, but he didn’t have Enoh’s bite. I hope his injury isn’t so severe that we don’t see him again. Fulham’s other substitute, Hugo Rodallega, might have stolen the match for The Whites in Orange shortly after he came on, but he was wasteful of a brilliant pass from Berbatov, showing the same hesitation and confusion that every attacker in black and white stripes showed the entire match … until minute 93.
So, we didn’t win and, in the process, gave up points to several other sides near us. But there should be no shame in this. You can’t win them all, and Fulham really didn’t deserve a point, never mind three.
Hatter Don’s Man of the Match is Captain Brede Hangeland. Yes, Tha Big Aussie had some great saves. Yes Riise shut Newcastle’s attacks down the right time and again. Yes, Berbatov was by many miles the classiest player on the pitch, and yes, Ruiz really has added strength to his game. But the one phrase I kept hearing over and over again today was, “and Hangeland clears.” He was little short of awesome today. It was a good enough shift to compare to any he’s turned in since Roy Hodgson brought him here.
Next up? Aston [gulp] Villa at Villa Park. As Watt used to say, “Oh well, what the hell.”