Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Fulham 1 Chelsea 2

With Fulham earning a deserved first-half lead from a Danny Murphy penalty, Ray Hodgson had the opportunity to become an instant cult hero as he began his tenure as Fulham manager with a game against local rivals Chelsea. However, it was not be, as Chelsea emerged from the break to overpower a tiring Fulham team, and proceeded to grind out an efficient victory with goals from Kalou and Ballack.

Worthy Opponents
Looking increasingly comfortable (and happier) in possession these last few games, Fulham today added a touch of tenacity to their play to render themselves far more worthy opponents for Chelsea than respective league positions might suggest.

Despite seeming subdued, and making a surprising number of unforced errors, Chelsea still looked dangerous on the counter-attack, launching high balls towards the eager Solomon Kalou. Joe Cole was another outlet for Chelsea offensive play, being given ample time and space to contrive openings by the Fulham defence.

Volz was making a good impression with a committed and swashbuckling display on the right wing. Within 10 minutes he embarked on one of his cavalier charges into the penalty area, turned a defender, and was brought down for a penalty. Murphy’s precise strike hit the net with Hilario diving in the opposite direction.

A Fragile Lead
As per the Birmingham game, the Fulham supporters were encouraged by an enterprising first-half display, whilst at the same time obliged to ponder the fragility that a 1-goal Fulham lead typically represents.

After the thrust of the first half, Fulham entered their, by now predictable, 45 minute refractory period. With a re-configured Chelsea midfield now including the commanding Mikel (replacing the ineffective Sidwell) alongside Ballack, they began to wilt under their opponents increasing pressure and aggression. Davis and Murphy, so effective previously, looked increasingly lightweight as they were harried, and frequently bustled off the ball.

Yesterday, David Lacey (in a positive piece in The Guardian, here) referred to Murphy, Davies, and Davis as “craftsmen operating the same lathe”, echoing Ray Lewington’s concern that it’s the mixture of the squad that requires modification, rather than the quality.

Today’s second-half display made this fear all too justified: Fulham have no-one comparable in stature to a Ballack or a Mikel; someone with enough authority to dominate the central area and gain possession, but still mobile enough to cover the ground required by a high-tempo game. With the sale of the underperforming Papa Bouba Diop, always expected to assume this role, the club now lack any players with even the potential to satisfy this lack. The transfer window beckons, Mr. Hodgson.

On 54 minutes, Chelsea’s dominance told, as Kalou headed home from a corner. 6 minutes later, Ballack buried a penalty, and the early promise evaporated.

Volz’s energetic start was undermined by his lack of matches and, as he began to tire, he was replaced by Seol Ki-Hyeon. Despite one committed run, riding 3 challenges to deliver a cross, the Korean unfortunately recalls Kamara in his tendency to overcomplicate his play, and he frequently surrenders possession. 2 minutes later Smertin was brought on for the slowly improving Davis, as Fulham battled to regain some measure of midfield influence.

Blunt Attack
They laboured on, but were enduringly blunt in attack. Although Murphy was culpable for some inaccurate passes, he is frequently being made to look worse when, in possession of the ball, he is offered so few outlets by his teammates. Similarly, Dempsey toils away in isolation and appears increasingly aggrieved at the lack of support he receives.

Lacking any semblance of an attacking threat, Fulham’s forward line was refreshed in 77th minute with Healy replacing the increasingly inconsequential Kamara. Although they rallied in the last 10 minutes, they never looked like conjuring enough quality to fashion an equaliser.

Niemi 7, Konchesky 7, Stefanovic 7, Bocanegra 7, Omozusi 8, Davies 6, Davis 6 (Smertin 6), Murphy 7, Volz 7 (Ki-Hyeon 3), Dempsey 7, Kamara 3 (Healy 6).

Substitutions: Ki-Hyeon for Volz (68th minute); Smertin for Davis (70th minute); Healy for Kamara (77th minute).

Substitutes Not Used: Warner, Kuqi.


George H said...

Good summary, but I'm surprised that you gave Stefanovic such a high grade. I thought that he was terrible today.

smfifteen said...

Must admit that I didn't notice him performing noticeably worse than anyone else in the defence. Whilst he's neither fast nor elegant, I do find his willingness to get close to strikers and intercept the ball refreshing after years of Zat Knight standing several yards off his man.
As for the grades, well they're not a perfect science anyway. I find them particularly tricky when Fulham's performance varies so wildly between halves, as it has done recently. I've considered either awarding scores per half, or adding explanatory comments...but it all takes time, and can make the report a bit unwieldy.