Sunday, 6 January 2008

Fulham 2 Bristol Rovers 2

Based on previous cup outings, Fulham made predictably hard work of obtaining a draw with League One side Bristol Rovers, after twice going behind.

Before they had even had time to start playing poorly they conceded, their opponents clearly more motivated and alert than they were. Within three minutes, a failed clearance was stabbed at from 6 yards by Coles and deflected past the stranded Niemi. Amongst the Fulham supporters, resigned through experience to witnessing such scenarios, shock is generally replaced with weary and knowing looks at such times.

Lack of urgency, poor concentration, and slack passing, all suggested that the Premier League team expected a victory to materialise by virtue of their status alone.

Bouazza had started poorly. He wasn’t the only one, but he looked cold, distracted, and failed to progress when in possession. Within 15 minutes he had been moved to a central position. On 23 minutes, he made his first attempt to take on his opponent, and pulled up despite little absence of a challenge, holding his shoulder. There were more knowing looks from the crowd, as what looks like the third dislocation of the season for the Algerian. His prevailing fragility looks like an ongoing problem, but one that was surely avoidable.

The positive aspect to this was, with Baird replacing the departing winger, Volz pushed forward into the right midfield position he so impressed in against Chelsea on New Year’s Day. Another fine performance, full of vigour and application was to follow until his substitution in 72nd minute.

Slowly, Fulham began to loosen and flex, and under the orchestration of Danny Murphy began to fashion opportunities. Dempsey had a headed goal disallowed through a Stefanovic foul after 10 minutes. Healy fired a low shot just past the post following a Murphy free-kick.

However, the crowd became increasingly restless as, despite noticeable post-Sanchez improvements, basic failings persist. There were too many unforced errors, too many mis-hit passes, often compromising team-mates, and the back-four looked worryingly disorganised. Stefanovic was less dominant than in recent games and, after an impressive start to the season, Konchesky’s inconsistent displays continue. He did however contribute a fine free-kick on the half hour following one of several Dempsey runs direct at the Rovers’ defence that drew a free-kick.

Healy’s movements continue to mystify: he either drops back - to the half-way line at times - to pick up the ball, despite not being particularly adept at penetrating defences with the ball at his feet; or he appears way over on the right by-line, where he is similarly ineffective. This is how he played under Sanchez, and it’s unclear if this behaviour is a legacy of the former manager’s approach, or part of his natural play. It makes evaluating his genuine Premier League potential extremely difficult. When he appeared where one would expect him to appear - six yards out - he scored with a well-placed header, courtesy of a Volz cross. 40 minutes gone, and 1-1.

Fulham finished the half strongly and threatened to score again. A glancing Healy header from another Murphy free-kick forced a save, whilst a curling Smertin shot from the edge of the box went marginally wide.

They improved further in the second half and, apart from a few Rovers’ forays, achieved the majority of possession and goal-scoring chances. There are still some of Sanchez’s fingerprints on the team, principally in the guise of the occasional long, high ball hit towards, infuriatingly, the smallest player on the pitch, David Healy.

Murphy continued to be the main creator of Fulham’s moves, collecting and carrying throughout.

Despite the home team’s dominance, on 64 minutes Bristol Rovers took the lead once more, Fulham demonstrating that one of the many fundamental areas that they require improvement in is the defence of set pieces, as Hinton headed in a free-kick unchallenged.

Clint Dempsey is a crucial source of quality and inventiveness (and no little graft) for the Fulham team. He still needs to increase the speed of his decision-making as he is regularly caught in possession, and thwarted in his attempt to pass or shoot. However, along with Danny Murphy, he is not helped when each time he looks up when in possession, he finds himself surrounded by static players, with no available outlets for a pass.

Indeed, it is in attack that the fiercest revolution is required. Deprived of Brian McBride’s opportunism, intelligence, and sheer work-rate, Fulham do not possess any single player that carries enough of a threat to cause consternation in an opposition defence. Hence, all their chances have to be created by virtue of careful build-up play, and delivered on a plate to a player to finish. Healy is in this category: provide him with an opportunity in the box, and he can score; outside of the box, he is willing, but merely functional.

On 72 minutes, the tiring Volz and Smertin were replaced by Ki-Hyeon and Davis. Almost immediately, Davis played an incisive ball to Dempsey, holding off his marker with his back to goal. He laid it off to Murphy, who struck cleanly from 20 yards, the keeper only able to push it into the top corner.

With Ki-Hyeon achieving sporadic success down the right with his rather limited repertoire of step-overs, Fulham continued to threaten to create a winner, but were ultimately forced to accept what was probably the worst outcome for them, a draw.

Niemi 7, Konchesky 5, Stefanovic 5, Bocanegra 6, Volz 7 (Ki-Hyeon 6), Bouazza 4 (Baird 6), Murphy 8, Smertin 7 (Davis 6), Davies 6, Dempsey 7, Healy 6.

Substitutions: Baird for Bouazza (23rd minute); Ki-Hyeon for Volz, Davis for Smertin (72nd minute).

Substitutes Not Used: Batista, Leijer.

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