Saturday, 12 January 2008

West Ham 2 Fulham 1

Despite Fulham taking an early lead through a Simon Davies free-kick, West Ham’s efficient and industrious team struck back twice to gain a deserved victory at the Boleyn Ground.

Jimmy Bullard's last game for Fulham was an away win against Newcastle. He was stretchered off with severe trauma to his knee ligaments that required the skill of a world-leading surgeon to repair. After 15 months of rehabilitation, he returned to the first team today. During that time, Fulham have failed to win another away match.

So, the scene was all set for the circle to be closed: Bullard returns, and Fulham win an away game once more.

No.

The team that Bullard returns to is considerably different from the one he was forced to leave in September 2006. In that time, they have changed managers twice, and acquired almost an entire new team, but have made little, if any, progress. Today, they were unable to offer a significant challenge to an organised but unspectacular West Ham side.

Fulham obtained an early lead. A Dempsey flick-on was gathered by Healy on the corner of the West Ham penalty area. He was bundled over for a free-kick, which Simon Davies swerved into the box. Carlos Bocanegra ran towards it and, although he appeared to make no contact, managed to distract Robert Green enough for it continue into the net.

After 13 minutes Bocanegra was replaced by Aaron Hughes, the American apparently injured.

Fulham looked nervous in defence, but were not helped by a referee awarding a stream of free-kicks against them for innocuous challenges. At this stage, Etherington was offering the greatest threat, with Volz and Baird struggling to syncopate sufficiently to nullify the speedy winger.

Slowly, Murphy and Davis attempted to crank their passing game into life, but with their West Ham counterparts giving them little time on the ball, their rushed efforts were yielding frequent errors. As they attempt to reclaim a style of play abandoned for so long they appear, at times, to be playing at the limits of their ability. Hence, only the slightest pressure compromises it’s success.

When play gets compressed they do at least now have the wherewithal, typically through Murphy, to spread the ball via a few lateral passes to the opposite flank to create the space to instigate an attack. This is something not seen since the last days of Tigana, but apart from this there was disappointingly little evidence of any further Hodgson influence today.

With 27 minutes gone, the prevailingly off-colour Konchesky committed himself into a challenge that he failed to win. With free space, Ljungberg floated in a cross that Ashton, his run to the near post too quick for his marker, headed in past the helpless Niemi.

5 minutes later, an Etherington pass traversed the entire Fulham area, watched with interest but no response, by the Fulham players, for Ashton to fire in from the edge. Only a fine save from Niemi onto the bar, prevented West Ham from taking the lead.

Ashton and his partner Carlton Cole were causing problems continually by now, and their performance (together with the presence of Brian McBride amongst the Fulham supporters) highlighted just how lacking are in this area Fulham are. Dempsey and Healy are certainly game but they pose almost no threat to an opposition defence. Dempsey, admittedly not a pure striker, is combative, but lacks the pace to beat players. Healy is unfortunately beginning to resemble the younger brother allowed, as a favour, to play with the older boys.

This gap was demonstrated further when another fierce Ashton shot was palmed over the bar, and a Carlton Cole charge into the box, a clear opportunity, was fired directly at the goal keeper, Hughes having been easily shrugged off. Green had little similar action to occupy him at the other end.

Where a revitalised, reformulated, response was required from Fulham, none was delivered. Indeed, it was the home team who strengthened, while their visitors began to pale. The high tempo of the first half resumed, and the first 10 minutes were end-to-end. It was West Ham producing the more dangerous efforts though, Fulham’s counter-attacks continually breaking down as a result of poor passing, poor control and a general lack of understanding between players. Simon Davies contributed an energetic and enterprising performance, but his willing runs at the opposition defence were rarely rewarded with outlets through which to exploit his efforts.

Volz set up Dempsey for a powerful shot that went just wide but, with 30 minutes of the half gone, a Cole header was cleared off the line by Konchesky, the striker being replaced by Boa Morte shortly after.

Fulham’s defence, unsteady and uncoordindated all day, was slowly unravelling. Stefanovic is rarely elegant but can at times be an effectively direct defender. Today he was lumpen and hapless. Baird was floundering all game, and Konchesky has changed from an authoritative, unflappable presence to an error-prone figure, regularly left for dead.

Yet another cross was allowed to spin into the box unchallenged, for Ferdinand to score from 15 yards out. It was overdue. 2 minutes later, Ashton broke through and should have scored from close range.

With 15 minutes remaining, Dempsey had a fine header from a Davies corner cleared off the line, and Baird headed over from a Murphy free-kick. With the breakthrough appearing increasingly elusive, Smertin replaced the ineffective Healy, and Bullard made his long-awaited return for the eager but unrefined Volz. With Dempsey now on his own, an equaliser appeared even less likely.

Fulham continued to labour but simply lacked the quality to progress. Bullard caught the eye with his ground-covering, and attempts to orchestrate the team, but had little opportunity to make an impact. A deflected shot in injury time would have provided a sweet return from the wilderness, but it would have been more than his team deserved.

Niemi 7, Konchesky 5, Stefanovic 5, Bocanegra n/a (Hughes 5), Baird 4, Davies 7, Davis 6, Murphy 6, Volz 5 (Bullard 6), Dempsey 6, Healy 4 (Smertin 5).

Substitutions: Hughes for Bocanegra (13th minute); Smertin for Healy, Bullard for Volz (76th minute).

Substitutes Not Used: Warner, Ki-Hyeon.

4 comments:

Chopper said...

Another well written report smfifteen. It's going to be a very tough end to the season but for now I'm still believing.

smfifteen said...

Thanks Chopper. I must admit to feeling like we're getting closer and closer to the cliff edge. After the WHU game, I don't think that Hodgson's influence on it's own is going to be enough - we need fresh personnel, and it's going to require some seriously dramatic transfers to rescue us.

Ilya said...

I agree with almost everything you said except that I thought Stefanovic was quite good. And if we consider him as the replacement for Zat Knight then he may be the only "upgrade" brought in by Lawrie. Hughes, on the other hand, seemed to be barely holding on from the moment he came on. He seems to have the know-how and the focus, but not the ability. On Ashton's goal, he surely was aware he was supposed to get in front of the striker, but just could not do so. In his defense, however, he may still be recovering from injury and Ashton might be the answer at striker for England.

smfifteen said...

I am actually a reasonably big fan of DS, but I thought he was poorer than in recent games. He certainly wasn't as commanding as he has been. Early on, there were several sliced clearances, and several blind headers, and maybe that tainted my judgement of the rest of his game?
I must admit to barely noticing Hughes, except for when he was grounded in trying to stop Cole charging into the area. But he's another player who I'm usually pretty impressed by.
I guess it was just a bad day for the defence all 'round: fairly worrying really.