Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Fulham 2 Everton 1

Fulham’s displays to date ensured that any expectations for this game were replaced by a curious ambivalence. With the demands of the Europa League already, apparently, exerting a deadening effect upon form, attempting predictions was a slippery pursuit. Should we anticipate another anaemic, under-powered display, the team lethargic and strangely lacking in belief or commitment? Or will the side that closed out last season start to swim into focus.

As the game started, the midfields squared up to each other and, with Everton suffering a similarly soporific start to the season, a war of attrition loomed.

Fulham’s passing still lacks the the polish and pizazz it had acquired midway through last season, a quality they so commendably maintained through to the final games. That well-oiled movement, previously so crisp, swift and assured, even in confined spaces, is still undergoing recalibration, still requires a little lubrication. With Everton deploying a high pressing approach, limiting time and space, there was clearly going to be little opportunity here to rediscover that synchronisation.

Early emerging patterns drew attention to Fulham’s wide midfield players, one of whom was behaving strangely like the archetypal winger not seen in white for a while. Indeed, within minutes, Damien Duff was demonstrating one of his in-demand qualities by delivering some teasing crosses across the Everton box - a welcome sight.

Whenever Duff was thus engaged on the right, Dempsey was appearing to drift even further central than usual, taking up a position behind Zamora and Johnson. With this role notoriously difficult to mark, he was enjoying freedom to receive the ball and provide the thus far missing link between the defence and the all-too-often isolated attack. Whether a conscious measure or not, it fostered more fluent build-up play.

Indeed, with defence, as ever, prioritised, the detachment of the front two players has typified Fulham’s performances so far this season. Searching balls are played forward to strikers who, outnumbered, inevitably lose possession before the midfield, based mainly in a different postcode, have reached them. Furthermore, on Sunday, with the Everton centre-backs intent on sharing intimate space with Zamora and Johnson, neither were able to get goal-side and conjur any real threat upon goal.

Indeed, Zamora spent much of the game entwined in a vice-like embrace with Joseph Yobo. At times they between them resembled the cover of a 1940s pulp sci-fi magazine. One where some hapless brylcreemed adventurer is writhing at the mercy of a gaint octopus emerging enraged from the ocean.

Joseph Yobo introduces himself to Bobby Zamora

The referee, a ballroom fan perhaps, appeared unconcerned by their enduring partnership.

Although the strikers’ contribution to the team ethic should not be overlooked, it does blunt their striking efficacy and demand a similarly team-minded approach to score goals. Opportunities for mercurial displays of attacking will continue to be limited for both for a while. Indeed, Hodgson’s philosophy appears to have condemned Zamora and Johnson to a Fulham career comprised of ugly performances.

However, a similar act of imprisonment was being implemented at the other end of the pitch, with Hangeland and Hughes the disciplined jailers. They were doing a reliably efficient job of shackling Everton’s attack, although the lacklustre Jo, whose presence barely disturbed the turf, was not demanding the physical attention being meted out by Everton’s central pair.

Despite the risk of the teams wholly nullifying each other, and industry for the most part replacing artistry, the game was developing into fairly compelling, swashbuckling contest, full of grit and resolve. Indeed, Danny Murphy, not yet his impish, magisterial self, was becoming increasingly irritable as a result of fussy, inconsistent refereeing, his team’s lack of fluidity, and his own wayward distribution. It appeared increasingly unlikely that he would reach the 90th minute without seeing a rectangle of red against the sky.

One particularly clumsy challenge on Pienaar in the 33rd minute led to a free-kick some 35 yards out, and was floated by Baines into the Fulham box. Unfortunately, despite having scored half of his Premiership goals with his head, Cahill’s threat at set-pieces was still clearly under-appreciated by the Fulham defence, as he was allowed in front of Etuhu to perform his party piece once more. His offside position was overlooked by the linesman and off he set to spar with the corner flag.

Deflated, Fulham slowly lost composure. Compasses spinning, the players’ co-ordination faltered, and passes skidded astray. With tempers unravelling, the game began to bristle and spark.

Despite conceding, Fulham’s build-up play continued to lack urgency, the ball repeatedly played sideways or backwards. This leisurely approach allows the opposition time to regroup, and thus limit space in their half. By the time the ball has breached the half-way line, the front players have inevitably have come to rest, by necessity, in line with the oppositions’ defence, rendering runs behind them near impossible. Thus Andy Johnson is robbed of one of his primary weapons. Furthermore, the player carrying the ball forward, often Dempsey, finds himself faced with a group of static team-mates, all being shadowed closely by an opposition player. Hence, a few of his long shots appeared to result as much from a lack of alternatives as anything else.

The delivery of a few eloquent Hodgson epithets at half-time engendered a little more vigour, and the team’s tempo increased as they began the second half. Chances began to half-form, and the crowd’s increasing excitement appeared to energise the team still further. Following a foul by Neville on Paintsil in the 57th minute, a Murphy free-kick was repelled by the wall. Konchesky, loitering, connected sweetly, his powerful half-volley beheading daisies before being deflected away from the stranded Howard and into the goal.

The engaging tussle continued, both teams resilient and combative but hampered somewhat by a lack of flair. The energetic Pienaar, the tormentor in last season’s defeat at the Cottage, endeavoured to penetrate, and was being granted worrying amounts of time and space.

A goal-kick from Fulham’s impressive goalkeeping debutante David Stockdale was edged on by Zamora to Johnson. He deftly laid the ball off to the advancing Duff, before turning and making a diagonal run away from goal, dragging Yobo with him. Duff accelerated into the space created, and from the edge of the box, fired a shot that curved away just enough to elude Howard but not the net.

Received opinion suggests that Duff’s pace has subsided, but he is still clearly able to evade a defender with enough movement to earn the space to shoot, as he had already shown in the first half. It was a goal that, perhaps, only Dempsey amongst the current squad could have scored, and was encouraging evidence of another much-needed addition to the Fulham armoury.

The remaining 11 minutes of the game, extended by 5 minutes as a result of treatment required for Phil Neville’s knee injury, saw some frantic firefighting in the Fulham box, but their lead was preserved.

With the beginning of a worrying sequence of defeats terminated, the final whistle witnessed relief suffusing the celebrations.

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