Well, That Was More Like It
Both Martin Jol and Steve Clarke described today’s match as “must win.” So, naturally, it wound up a draw. Both sides worked hard and, although Fulham were certainly the more unlucky in front of goal, a draw was a fair result over the run of play.
Fulham fielded a side filled with potential scapegoats: Richardson, Ruiz, Berbatov, Sidwell, and Arch Scapegoat Senderos. West Brom decided to keep their main danger man on the sub’s bench and so the answer to the big question in the run-up to the match, “Who will have to mark Sinclair?” turned out to be “Clarke” – for at least the first hour or so. Victor Anichebe did feature and, for the first half, engaged in a very entertaining duel with Philippe Senderos.
Last season, Steve Clarke was the only manager in the Premier League who didn’t know that the way to stifle Fulham was to pressure our slow attackers and stop us from turning. As a result, we got six points from them that a better organized Albion might have kept for themselves. Today, Clarke’s side looked a bit more proactive, and there was a right battle up and down the pitch for 90+ minutes.
Fulham featured a starting XI that included Kacaniklic and Kasami, with both Ruiz and Berbatov in “creative attacking roles.” In other words, Fulham fielded a 4-6-0 at home. Unlike previous weeks however, Berbatov spent most of his time closer to the opposing keeper than to his own, and his presence, along with Kasami’s strength and aggression made Fulham a difficult side to contain. Special K was either thrilling or invisible throughout the match, but he was involved in most of the good things Fulham did in attack. In the 22nd minute, Fulham won a corner after a neat overlap by Richardson. Kacaniklic took the corner and with a leaping, twisting header, Senderos put the ball in Steve Sidwell’s reach, and the English midfielder’s poise in front of goal rewarded Fulham’s desperate supporters. 1-0 was a fair result, and it was heartening seeing the club immediately go for a second. Berbatov put the ball in the net twice more but was ruled offside on each occasion – one of them as close a call as you’re likely to see.
In the second half, Anichebe’s all out wrestling match with Senderos was interrupted when the Nigerian giant moved over to confront Hangeland. He easily rolled Fulham’s captain but fired a weak strike that Stockdale handled somewhat less than comfortably. That was the closest West Brom had come to a convincing chance. Everything changed, though, when West Brom brought on Sinclair and McAuley in the 63rd minute. Jol had just taken off a tiring Richardson for Amorebieta [the first ever Venezuelan in the Premier League according to the International Feed’s announcers], when Sinclair came on and immediately pressured our left back playing centre half.
From this point on, West Brom looked the team most likely. And so it was a surprise, really, when – on a top quality counter attack – several Fulham players contrived to get the ball to Bryan Ruiz’s feet inside the Albion penalty area. Ruiz collected himself and lofted a gorgeous ball that rebounded off the cross bar and out. Two seconds later, Fulham had the ball in the net courtesy of Rodallega [who had come in for Berbatov] but AGAIN the goal was disallowed for offside. I saw the replay three times; perhaps a fourth will convince me that SOMEBODY in Fulham colors was offside on that play. Never mind. Stockdale, after an uncertain performance, delivered a spectacular save and, after a scary looking injury for Fulham’s Costa Rican creator, the 90 minutes were well up.
Then came extra time – six minutes of it. West Brom were pouring it on and, after Fulham conceded a corner, Brunt found Gareth McAuley haring into the penalty area. The Albion sub beat Hangeland to the ball and headed past the Fulham defense into the net. The increased quality and creativity that West Brom showed after the double substitution of Sinclair and McAuley was rewarded.
Interestingly, after West Brom’s first goal of the season – two minutes into injury time of their FOURTH match – the visitors were the hungrier to get the decider. But that never came. Points shared, and it’s hard to argue that it’s an unfair result – even with the three disallowed Fulham “goals.”
Who looked good? Well, most everybody in white. Senderos had an excellent match in the main and mastered Anichebe. Riether did very well in defense and in attack. Ruiz was 75% wonderful and 25% rubbish. I still would like to see him in the role he plays for Costa Rica – a classic #10 pulling the strings – but that’s not going to happen. I thought Berbatov had his best match for us, and despite his tendency to wander into irrelevant positions, Kacaniklic gives us a dimension we have lacked without Dejagah in the side – someone who will turn upfield with pace and menace. Kasami was somewhat uneven, but with an attack that is as languid and passive as Fulham’s, he really needs to be up there – especially if we’re not going to play Taarabt. For Albion, the guy that caught my eye was Morgan Amalfitano. His play on the right nicely balances Brunt’s on the left. Once he’s gotten his Premiership legs, West Brom could give a lot of sides a lot of trouble.
Yes, Fulham dropped two points in injury time. Yes, we gave up the first goal Albion scored this season. Yes we still give up more shots on goal than any other Premier League side. But I still think today’s performance was “more like it.” We defended the fortress for the most part; we attacked early and often. We played with conviction and, occasionally, some pace. I was pleased to see the way we played the damn game, okay?
HatterDon’s Man of the Match is Scott Parker. I believe we have our Danny Murphy replacement, and – if we play in the manner we played today – I think he’ll be good enough to keep us out of trouble this year.
Who’s next? Who cares? Our home losing streak is over!