Saturday, 22 December 2007

Fulham 1 Wigan 1

Fulham’s first game under caretaker manager Ray Lewington saw them fight back to earn a draw against Wigan after a dominant first half had failed to yield any rewards. Despite the creation of a slew of early chances, it was left to Clint Dempsey to equalise with his 5th goal of the season, after Marcus Bent had put the visitors in front.

A New Beginning
The departure on Friday of Lawrie Sanchez, and with it his grim litany of protests and excuses, ensured that the poisonous atmosphere of the last game at Craven Cottage was not replicated for today’s fixture.

Despite uncertainty surrounding the future of both the team, and the managerial role, a sense of relief and renewed optimism prevailed prior to kick-off.

Fulham started the game in 18th position, and development squad duo Ray Lewington and Billy McKinlay replaced the outgoing Sanchez, Beasant and Gibson, as caretaker managers.

No Major Changes
Despite Lewington choosing not to use his first 24 hours in charge to implement any significant changes in either starting personnel or formation, the play itself certainly provided a refreshing change. In a pre-match interview he had summarised his ethos by revealing that he had instructed the players to “get the ball down and play”, and this was certainly what they were endeavouring to do.

After months of unstructured, unthinking, slapdash football, they at last seemed to be playing with freedom. Using the full width of the pitch, they were stringing together passes and creating openings. A passer-by wouldn’t have mistaken them for Arsenal, but it represented an encouraging improvement. The shackles, it appeared, were off.

With the cohesion and the possession came goal-scoring chances: Bouazza hit low crosses that Kamara first, and subsequently Dempsey and Davies, missed by inches. A Davies shot from just inside the box forced a good save from Kirkland. Kamara ran on to a Davies free kick, intercepting it just before the keeper was about to gather, but put it just wide.

The increasing confidence was apparent. Picking up the ball just inside the Wigan half, Konchesky continued forward and, with the opposition failing to close him down, shot from 30 yards, only the bar denying him, with Kirkland beaten.

Wigan threatened little, and Niemi had no saves to make, but there were still some occasional moments of panic among the defence. Communication breakdowns between the goalkeeper and the back four not being helped by his seeming refusal to step off his line, except when it was clearly too late.

Dominance But No Breakthrough

It was certainly a dominating 45 minutes of football from Fulham, and they should have been comfortably in front at the break. The crowd appreciated the renaissance and cheered them off with enthusiasm.

Despite the early promise, the adage about teams needing to score when playing well was looming ominously over the team. In the first five minutes it became clear that the snap had gone. Passes weren’t being completed. Reactions seemed slower. Worse, possession was being given up far too easily.

Kamara demonstrated an improvement on his last outing and appears to have at last realised that he’s allowed to pass to other players. He still goes to ground with alarming ease and regularity, however. Dempsey continued to labour with little support, and looked increasingly like the only player with enough guile to create a breakthrough.

Omuzusi convinced once more that he can succeed at this level, but unfortunately an attacking foray ended in injury. Lewington replaced him with Chris Baird, and at the same time sent on Healy for tackling-shy Steven Davis. Davies moved to the centre, Dempsey drooped back to right midfield, and Healy joined Kamara up front.

Declining Quality
As quality dissipated into the frosty air, the game disintegrated into a playground free-for-all; whilst both teams were clearly desperate to progress, neither were prepared to take the time to construct movements with any forethought or incision.

Wigan eventually broke through in the 70th minute. Michael Brown blindly looped a cleared ball over his head and back towards the Fulham area. A Wigan player flicked it back, apparently without challenge, to the waiting Marcus Bent, who lashed the ball past Niemi.

In many areas, Fulham had reverted to type, as Lewington’s pre-game instructions appeared to slip from collective memory. A few long balls were launched up towards Healy, the smallest player on the pitch, all unsurprisingly intercepted. Even the ones hit up to Kuqi he was unable to win – aerial dominance surely being his only justification for being on the pitch, as he lumbered about in vain.

Despite the deteriorating spectacle, the crowd continued to implore Fulham on, creating greater support than they had for many a game. In the 78th minute, a moment of penalty-box pinball lead to Kamara receiving the ball on the left of the Wigan area. His sliced shot spun across the goal to the closing Dempsey who did well to keep the ball down and on target, drilling it past Kirkland into the corner.

While the first half suggested potential for some kind of revival, the second demonstrated that there are still plenty of areas for an incoming manager to address as a matter of urgency. It was a frustrating outcome to a game that had started so positively, and demonstrated that whilst they the club had taken the first step towards survival by dismissing an underachieving manager, his legacy will take a little longer to reverse.

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

Substitution: Baird for Omozusi, Healy for Davis (59th minute); Kuqi for Bouazza (72th minute).

Substitutes Not Used: Warner, Ki-Hyeon.