Monday, 26 November 2007

Fulham 2 Blackburn 2

Recently, Fulham have become somewhat notorious for their custom of conceding goals in the last 10 minutes of matches, together with the fact that their half-time scores alone would place them at the top of the Premier League table. The more generous observers attending this game at Craven Cottage might therefore deem congratulations in order, as Lawrie Sanchez’s team successfully avoided adding any more statistical weight to this phenomenon.

The more pragmatic bystanders, however, would no doubt counter that conceding an equalising goal in the 79th minute does not represent a huge progression beyond this sobering record. They would also allude to the continuing fragility of their play, their flimsy midfield, and the enduring enigma that is Diomansy Kamara.

Fulham received an early bonus at the outset of this game: after 3 minutes, Blackburn’s leading goal-scorer and major goal threat, Benni McCarthy, was taken off following a weighty challenge from the imposing Dejan Stefanovic. Santa Cruz had been omitted, leaving the oncoming Jason Roberts as their sole striker.

Fulham appeared eager to exploit this, and embarked upon a spell of neat passing and swiftly executed counter-attacks. Bouazza looked aggressively direct, but still squandered the final ball too often. The occasional glance around would help this.

A magnificent through-ball from Dempsey released Kamara from the traps: a one-on-one should have been academic, but instead of continuing on past Keller, or shooting early, he chose to dither and check, and the chance was gone. It was first of many exasperating moments provided by the striker.

Blackburn, demonstrating that they are continuing to trade-in their previous, overtly physical, approach for informed tactics and fluent passing, looked equally potent.

Indeed, after 20 minutes, they began to eclipse Fulham’s efforts, increasingly by-passing the rather meek and accommodating partnership of Davis and Murphy with clinical passes in to the forward players, repeatedly rendering the entire Fulham midfield redundant.

Steven Davis is a player whose busyness suggests influence. A notion sadly subverted by his repeatedly incomplete passes, unforced errors, and the ease with which he was excised time after time by a neat Blackburn pass. Murphy offered little more.

On a few occasions, a Blackburn player ran from the half-way line to the Fulham box unchallenged. Cue bemused faces as the culprit was sought: an inquest never settled.

It is displays such as these make the popular Alexei Smertin’s continued excommunication a prevailing mystery.

Alarmingly, this failing continued to be exploited throughout the game. The only noticeable response was the late, central deployment of Simon Davies, toiling away in an attempt to shield the aforementioned two.

0-0 was an apt caption for an engaging but inert display at half-time.

Dempsey was an encouraging mixture of insight and industry throughout, and it was the Texan that forced the breakthrough, 5 minutes after the re-start. Chasing a lost cause by the left by-line, he fought for and gained possession, then squared a ball into the area. Kamara was brought down by Nelsen for a penalty that Murphy dispatched with poise.

Increasingly, Fulham floundered, performing the odd vignette of ball-scrambling panic in front of the thankfully restored Niemi.

As well as the central area, Blackburn had been finding space down Fulham’s left flank all game. This pattern, and Fulham’s escalating vulnerability provided the inevitable equaliser as Emerton fired in from a Warnock cross headed on by the offside Jason Roberts.

Nevertheless, this period gave rise to the best move of the game: a series of sharp interchanges lead to a Simon Davies cross/shot hybrid across the goalmouth that was met by Kamara, apparently offside, racing in at the far post.

The failure to address the weakness on the left was Fulham’s undoing once more, as Warnock slipped in unseen by Dempsey, to meet a cross from the right with an easy tap-in.

Sanchez will take encouragement from drawing with a team that he reiterated his admiration for after the game. However, as with the Reading game, the result belies the evidence. Although Blackburn are a few years further into their rebuilding than Fulham, they still constitute a far more robust outfit and, despite their image, conjure more guile than Fulham are able to at present.

Niemi 8, Baird 6, Hughes 6, Stefanovic 8, Konchesky 7, Davies 6, Davis 4, Murphy 5, Bouazza 6, Kamara 4, Dempsey 8.

Substitutions: Kuqi for Bouazza; Seol & Healy for Kamara & Murphy.

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