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.
At this point, Arsenal looked disjointed and dejected. Despite the fact that our back four and goalkeeper looked weak and disorganized most of the match, the Gunners looked as if they had someplace to go, but no idea how to get there. Just before half time, Fulham struck again. Berbatov consistently had the beating of the Arsenal defense on each wing, and so it was he ghosted in on the right wing, drove to the dead ball line and pulled the ball back sharply to our Swedish international. Special K headed in from a good 12 yards just inside Mannone’s near post. The [terrible] announcing crew went easy on him, but that was an eminently stoppable shot that he barely got his fingertips to. 2-2 at the half. What would the second 45 bring?
Fulham started the second half once again maintaining most of the possession. Arsenal countered, but Fulham seemed the side most likely. I was thrilled to see that we did NOT decide to park the bus for the entire second half. Ruiz was especially fun to watch. Arteta could not control him, and his ability to turn sharply in dangerous positions with defenders hanging on him was remarkable. On one foray upfield, Arsenal thought they had dispossessed him twice, only to see him wiggle free and drive into the penalty area with the hapless Arteta clinging to him like a shabby cloak. Mr. Dowd blew the whistle, Berbatov took the slow-motion penalty while Mannone posed for photographs, and Fulham took the lead – away to the Arsenal, a side we’ve never beaten on any of their grounds. Indeed, I wonder if we’ve ever scored three goals at their place. Hmmmm.
Arsenal came back at us again and, only two minutes later, Giroud slipped sideways through a spread out and tiring Fulham defense and the game was knotted. Arsenal’s “supporters,” who had been napping since Fulham drew level in the first half, came to life and the last 20+ minutes was either a joy or an agony to watch. Either side could have scored, Kacaniklic and Berbatov for us and Giroud for them. We won several corners but both Hughes and Hangeland made poor efforts at attacking them. All of this happened in a wide-open last ten minutes of full time.
Finally, in extra time, Fulham fell back to defend the point. In the last 30 seconds of the four allotted minutes, a Fulham clearance fell to Ruiz. That, you had to feel, was that, but instead of moving forward, the Costa Rican played a long diagonal back pass that was intercepted by Andrei Arshavin. The enigmatic Russian drove towards goal and shot. Riether blocked the ball with his elbow and, with the very last action of the game, Arsenal had a chance to secure all three points. Arteta, who won’t be watching this match on his DVR, stepped up to take the penalty and fired hard and low to Schwarzer’s left. Tha Big Aussie was equal to it and, as the ball was pushed around the post, Mr. Dowd blew for time. Great stuff to watch.
As a team, Fulham looked every bit a top 10 side. Individually, there are some concerns. Dejagah is possessed of great touch and tremendous skill. What he doesn’t have is pace or quickness. In other words, he’s last season’s Bryan Ruiz. I hope he improves as much as our Costa Rican did. Hughes and Hangeland, for the most part, had horrific games. Riether played his worst game in memory, and Riise only ventured upfield once. Schwarzer had his usual “little girl with the little curl” 90 minutes. His handling and distribution were shaky, but that point saving effort in the 95th minutes wipes clean a lot of slates. Sidwell and Baird worked hard, but if our midfield were the equal of our strike force, neither would be starting. Kacaniklic played very well after coming on. I do believe that the more pitch time he gets with Berbatov and Ruiz the better he’ll become. He’s got good attacking instincts. All he needs to improve is his decision-making.
Coulda been three; coulda been none. I’ll settle for the one point, and I think most who read this will. I know that Martin Jol will.
HatterDon’s Man of the Match is Dimitar Berbatov – two goals and one assist will do that for you. Despite Arsenal’s high-priced talent on display, Great Uncle Bulgaria was easily the best player on the pitch. Second best, by some margin, was Bryan Ruiz. He has arrived, folks, and he and Berbatov are a fearsome pairing up front.
International break coming up; I’ll be rooting hard for no Fulham injuries. COYW