Saturday, 29 December 2007

Birmingham 1 Fulham 1

Fulham’s tendency this season to always be a goal shy and a half short was again their undoing today as they faced fellow relegation scrappers Birmingham at St. Andrews. Despite securing a well-deserved first-half lead, they once more proved unable to sustain form throughout 90 minutes, and succumbed to the burden of their away record. Indeed, they ended up a player short, frantically battling to preserve a point.

Lewington's Final Task
This was Ray Lewingtons’s third game as caretaker manager despite the appointment of Ray Hodgson on Friday, who attended today’s game as an observer only. He will oversee his first training session on Sunday.

The returning Steven Davis sent Smertin to the bench, Healy doing the same to Kamara. Stefanovic replaced the injured Aaron Hughes as both player and captain, with Omozusi selected in place of the injured Chris Baird.

There was much to encourage the incoming manager in the first half, although the quality took a while to surface. After an 18 yard Healy shot within the first 30 seconds, neither team seemed able to impose any measure of care upon their play. On 5 minutes, McSheffrey broke through for a one-on-one with Niemi, but blazed over from 10 yards.

Slowly, Fulham began to piece together the passing game they have been encouraged to rediscover under Lewington. They gradually gained ascendancy, moving through the error-prone Birmingham players repeatedly.

In the 8th minute, Carlos Bocanegra met a Simon Davies corner at the near post for a deserved lead.

Increasing Confidence
With confidence, and ease on the ball, improving, the threat to the Maik Taylor’s goal increased. With 30 minutes gone, Birmingham were looking increasingly fragile, and further Fulham goals appeared a formality.

However, they didn’t materialise. Despite the completion of an impressive half, Fulham supporters know from experience that one goal is never enough, and that 45 minutes is a long time in football.

One can only hope that Mr. Hodgson spurned any half-time refreshment, and instead opted to avail himself of the dressing room debrief, for there are surely many clues to be gleaned from this mysterious gathering. Something truly inexplicable seems to occur during this period, for rarely does the team that emerges resemble the one that departed the field just a short spell previously.

Second-Half Slump
It was therefore with increasing frustration, and no little weariness, that Fulham’s all-too-predictable downturn revealed itself. In the space of 15 minutes they appeared to have lost the ability, or at least the confidence, to pass the ball as they were doing so nonchalantly in the first half.

Birmingham hadn’t suddenly morphed from a crude, lumpen assembly into a slick, gifted affair. All they appeared to be doing differently was closing down a little quicker; giving the Fulham players slightly less time to dwell. This however, seemed to be enough to spook them, to fracture their fragile confidence, and corrupt their recently re-employed skills.

From the start of the half up until Larsson’s deflected goal in the 55th minute, barely a single pass was completed between two white shirts. Balls were blindly hoofed or headed clear, even when time was available to settle and pick out a teammate. Poise was replaced with panic. Everything became frantic and hurried. Birmingham possessed but one tactic - a long central ball down the middle of the pitch – but Fulham were struggling to cope with it, and in the mêlée, their favoured approach had been sacrificed.

Such was the fare for the remainder of the game. Smertin replaced Murphy, presumably in an attempt to restore some calm and structure to a disappearing midfield. His influence was marginal. Dempsey, too, tried to control the ball and hold on to it on occasions, but these were moments of sobriety amid a riot of random and unthinking play.

With the game lumbering on, there was no fear of spoilers: the script is known to all by now. Fulham fingers are never very far from the self-destruct button, and in the 79th minute Bouazza duly picked up a second yellow and was dismissed. Birmingham sensed their chance, and pushed Fulham further and further back, relief only coming with the final whistle.

Typical Performance
Despite a win appearing so achievable, one wonders if the replaying of the typical, off-the-shelf, Fulham performance wasn’t perhaps the preferable outcome, considering the attendance of the new manager.

A freakish display, in which the opponents were dispatched with ease, before half-time, away from home, would have painted an illusory picture before Hodgson. He may have even felt minded to put out a weakened team against Chelsea on Tuesday...

Better, perhaps, that he witnesses at the outset the full breadth of the Fulham experience. From the sublime to the farcical; from dominating, and threatening to close out a game, to ten men blindly hoofing a ball around as they try desperately to preserve a precious point.

Mr. Hodgson, welcome to Fulham.

Niemi 7, Konchesky 5, Stefanovic 7, Bocanegra 7, Omozusi 7, Bouazza 6, Davis 6, Murphy 6 (Smertin 6), Davies 6, Dempsey 7, Healy 6 (Kuqi 4).

Substitutions: Smertin for Murphy (70th minute); Kuqi for Healy (74th minute).

Substitutes Not Used: Warner, Leijer, Kamara.

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