Saturday, 15 December 2007

Fulham 0 Newcastle 1

After an insipid first half of football, Fulham’s improved application after the break was undone by a 90th minute Newcastle penalty, and condemned them to the relegation zone.

A “winnable” game?
Before this match, Lawrie Sanchez had earmarked it, and the 3 games to follow (Wigan at home, Spurs and Birmingham away) as “winnable”. He hoped that the points acquired from the Christmas spell would see the club entering the New Year higher than the 17th place they occupied at the start of the day.

Having fallen at the first hurdle, his tenure looks increasingly fragile.

Fragile also describes Fulham’s first five minutes. As Newcastle attacked relentlessly, they were unable to escape from their penalty area, let alone their half. Last-ditch clearances were scrambled blindly up field, landing each time at Newcastle feet, only for another attack to be instigated. This happened over and over: it was like watching a tape loop of incompetence.

The storm weathered, Fulham attempted to mount attacks of their own. However, they lacked cohesion and they lacked understanding. Most damning of all, they lacked the ability the pass to each other. Unforgivably, they lacked commitment.

Newcastle pressed high up the pitch and subsequently saw more possession, and it’s always worrying when the opposition appear to have an extra player.

Midfield Shortcomings
As against Blackburn, Fulham’s midfield duo served up tissue-thin, blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em performances. Murphy, presumably deployed as a “playmaker” of sorts, hit balls that apparently only he knew the purpose of, whilst Davis continues to perfect the art of looking busy whilst achieving nothing. Smertin’s re-appearance on the bench provides a vestige of hope, at least.

Bouazza made sporadic forays down the wing, the occasional completed cross sailing over Healy’s head. The Irishman was desperate to capitalise on a rare starting place, courtesy of the suspended Kamara. Dempsey laboured to inject a little creativity but was repeatedly stifled by opposition players swarming around him.

As the half wore on, Fulham stabilised defensively. Hughes was steady, and Bocanegra thankfully avoided reproducing the drop in performance that we’re used to seeing when he’s switched from centre to left back. Stefanovic was rudimentary but effective, repeatedly intercepting Newcastle balls with his head. Most encouraging of all was Elliot Omozusi, continuing to grow in stature, he played with intelligence, assurance and poise.

Supporter Discontent
As Sanchez left the pitch at half time, a vociferous section of the crowd suggested he leave the club altogether.

The manager may have passed the crowd’s dissatisfaction with him onto his players, for they resumed play with greater intent, and even began to suggest that they actually wanted to win the game. They closed Newcastle down with more eagerness, and pressed them higher up the pitch.

Bouazza in particular appeared re-energised and gained increasing success, one particular cross being marginally too swift for Dempsey’s boot to make contact with as he sprinted in at the near post.

Apart from a few more spells of defensive pressure, Fulham looked the most likely to score. With 15 minutes remaining, Kuqi replaced Davis, Demspey moving to right midfield, Davies into the middle. As well as setting off a few minor earthquakes in SW6, he began flicking on cleanly-won headers, the majority being squandered by his team-mates inability to anticipate them. Kuqi gives everything, but despite being admirably honest, seeing his toil and bluster being deployed in place of panache and guile does sap the spirit somewhat.

Healy In The Premiership
Another honest trier is David Healy, but question marks over his ability to succeed at this level remain. Around the box he carries little threat. He possesses neither the pace nor the skill to beat players, neither has he the physical strength to withstand challenges from imposing centre backs. It’s apparent from his international success that given service within the box he will score, but the same could be said of Collins John.

With this in mind, it is an ongoing mystery why the team continue to launch long high balls up to someone who is comfortably the smallest player on the pitch. Even more perplexing is the sight of him repeatedly materialising out wide on the right wing. True, he often succeeds in providing crosses, but with his qualities in mind it is reasonable to expect that Healy should be the one in the box receiving the crosses, not providing them.

Undone At The Death
When discussing how to improve the team’s record, Sanchez spoke about elements within a game that he could control, and those he couldn’t. There’s little he could have done to avert the awarding of a penalty, in the 90th minute, with a draw just about concluded. A penalty for which none of the away side appealed, and for which no one except for the referee could identify a cause.

It was a messy, frustrating end to the game, and queered the story considerably. For not only did it turn a deserved point into a defeat, but it provided Sanchez with another hook on which to hang an explanation for a defeat; another sleight of hand with which to try to detract from another unsatisfactory performance.

The crowd, however, will not be fooled. He left the pitch to sustained abuse.

Niemi 7, Bocanegra 6, Hughes 6, Stefanovic 7, Omozusi 8, Bouazza 7, Murphy 5, Davis 5 (Kuqi 6), Davies 6, Dempsey 7, Healy 6.

Substitution: Kuqi for Davis (75th).

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