Friday, 18 September 2009

CSKA Sofia 1 Fulham 1

With only 2 of the starters from Sunday’s Premiership victory over Everton lining up tonight, Hodgson’s approach to Fulham’s European “adventure” could be interpreted in one of two ways: it is a liability that, subverting form, has the potential to degrade the team’s Premier League status, and thus an early exit would not be mourned; or, it is an ideal opportunity to exercise squad and academy players, make them feel engaged, and allow their suitability for the first team to further assessed.

Slightly undermining the first, the commentator remarked, was the fact that all Fulham’s outfield players were internationals. As the game kicked off, he then proceeded to refer to “dear old Fulham”, rendering the remainder of his remarks as mere white noise.

Nevertheless, one hoped that the selected players could execute whatever strategy Hodgson had hatched for them, as, uncle Zuberbuhler aside, the bench boasted the same demographic as one from your local shopping centre - exclusively teenage - and one with not a first-team appearance seated upon it.

Along the flanks, the pairings of Painstil and Kelly, and Gera and Davies, instilled some experience. Chris Baird at centre-back would bear the responsibility of chaperoning both sidekick Chris Smalling and goalkeeper David Stockdale. Perhaps the greatest unknown was the central partnership of newcomers Riise and Greening.

Sofia began eagerly with 2 shots on goal in the first 3 minutes. Greening appeared to be adopting a Murphyesque role, dropping back to receive the ball from the defence. His distribution and insight, understandably, is yet to rival the team captain’s.

Although Sofia were working hard to limit space, Fulham slowly secured a grip on the game. Play was becoming increasingly contained within the centre of the pitch, and Sofia’s early forays forward were memories slowly dissolving.

While Riise was struggling to find a meaningful role, Baird was looking steady and assured, setting a fine example for his teenage accomplice.

As expected, fluidity and flair were once again hostages to organisation and containment. With fifteen minutes gone, Riise, Nevland, Kamara, and Davies may have enjoyed just one touch apiece.

As lack of involvement irked, Diomansy Kamara began to drop back to find the ball, before attempting to bedazzle the entire Sofia eleven. He had limited success, but his dynamism at least set an example for the team, and his admirable commitment was sustained through to the final minute of the game.

Fulham, robust, and surprisingly organised considering their unfamiliarity with each other, were slowly gaining ascendancy. The home side’s timidity was allowing them to begin to entertain grander plans.

The final minute of the half saw Fulham’s best chance when a Greening interception in midfield led to a web of tight interplay in the Sofia box, culminating in a Simon Davies shot directly at the goalkeeper.

Sofia began the second half with ambition magnified. As their pressure increased, so Fulham contrived to counter. Another intricate exchange between Kamara, Davies, and Nevland was eventually crowded out by the Sofia defence.

In the 61st minute, a pass was floated enticingly towards the edge of the Fulham box. The ball was cleverly chested on towards substitute Platini, perhaps revealing Smalling to be a little too forgiving in his marking. The striker reacted swiftly, held off the closing centre-back, and maintained his balance well to shoot wide of Stockdale and into the net.

It took Fulham three minutes to reply, and the swiftness of the response appeared to stun Sofia into a daze for the rest of the game.

With the home side committed upfield, a forward ball was hooked instinctively on by Nevland towards the advancing Kamara. With the Sofia defence stranded, their keeper elected to race him to the ball despite it contriving to drop some 25 yards out. Kamara prevailed, executing a deft touch to take the ball past the onrushing keeper. He pursued the ball to the edge of the box, and calmly slotted it into the opposite corner of the unguarded goal, doing well to evade the tackle of the fast-closing defender.

From then on, Fulham earned burgeoning possession, and cultivated increasing poise and creativity. Slowly they stifled Sofia, whose desire was dissipating.

With 15 mintues to go, the home team had a final, golden, opportunity. A pass skidded across the box from the left flank past a defence frozen in mid-appeal for a non-existent offside. A powerful rising strike from 8 yards out demanded an accomplished reaction save from Stockdale.

With a few minutes remaining, Kamara was booked for his over-exuberant closing down. Application that, coupled with his attacking initiative, merited a a share of the man of the match plaudits with the calm and commanding Chris Baird.

Ultimately, however one interprets the manager’s approach, this was a satisfying, and satisfactory, result; one that was, considering the personnel and their lack of common playing time, founded on a performance of surprising cohesion and understanding.

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