For 67 minutes, it didn’t feel so. The Whites were troubled far more in the win against Blackburn on Wednesday night than they were in defeat to Birmingham on Saturday. The scoreline however, disagrees with this statement.
“Back to winning ways,” declared most newspapers yesterday morning, hidden amongst the array of Champions League results. True, it was the Cottagers first win in November however, Fulham will not play such an inferior first half all season without finding themselves behind at the break. If Franco Di Santo did not crumble under the pressure Mark Schwarzer’s giant frame closing him down created after just 90 seconds, the result could quite easily have been reversed. Such missed chances, combined with the determination of the likes of Aaron Hughes, Brede Hangeland and Chris Baird, allowed the scores to remain level until Fulham’s only true opportunity of the half presented itself to Erik Nevland just two minutes before the interval. He was not in the mood to follow in the young Argentine’s footsteps.
Brilliantly worked it was too. The previously leaden-footed Whites suddenly remembered who they were playing for, Roy Hodgson, a pupil of the ‘bring it down and play it’ school. The players combined skilfully and strung together what seemed like five passes – each one accurate. After bamboozling their way through the Rovers defence, Damien Duff returned the ball to Nevland, and there was only one outcome from there, a confused Hodgson team talk.
Whatever the manager said to his players during the interval, it had the desired effect, as those supporters who turned up to Craven Cottage on a cold, windy night by the Thames witnessed an entirely different second half. The passing was crisp, attractive, and effective. The team remembered which colour shirt they were playing in, and the Paul Robinson statue at the Putney End was replaced with a working model. As early as two minutes into the second half, Clint Dempsey should have doubled the lead as Jonathan Greening seemingly recovered from his first half bout of lacklustre, planted the ball on the American’s head. Unfortunately he was unable to convert and placed the ball the wrong side of the upright. Having already missed a similar, albeit more difficult header in the first half, if Dempsey were offered two goals, he would have snapped your hand off.
The Texan offered an indifferent showing upfront at Birmingham, however back in his more familiar left-wing position on Wednesday night, was having a similar effect against Blackburn. When Bobby Zamora limped off at 59 minutes, it was Dempsey who switched up top to partner Nevland. This time he showed exactly why Hodgson shows confidence in his abilities as a striker. While Dempsey has been almost ever-present in the previous two Premier League seasons, Nevland has been utilised mainly from the bench. Despite this, when playing together the duo have a natural link-up which can rarely be taught.
Neither man is the quickest around but, as is clear from their understanding on the pitch, they respect each other’s footballing brain, making runs and attempting passes they might not try with other players. During Nevland’s match on Wednesday, and his second-half showing against Liverpool back in October, both himself and Dempsey have shared five goals between them, and have created many more opportunities for one another.
The Blackburn fixture was the first in a string of winnable home games for Fulham. Three in the league and one in Europe despite the fact it was the second in a run of four games in 11 days. That the players looked lethargic for the entire Birmingham game and the first half against Blackburn is perhaps of slight concern. Although with Andy Johnson and Danny Murphy due for return combined with the continuing improved fitness of Dickson, Etuhu and Simon Davies, the squad should be able to battle through the coming fortnight. Training and fit, Johnson and Murphy are being given as much time as they require to fully recover from respective knocks however, expect to see them back in action sooner rather than later. Specifically if Zamora’s injury leaves the Whites with only one legitimate striker.
A solid result against Bolton this weekend will extend the cushion between Fulham and the relegation battle which is already heating up. Surely there will not be two consecutive seasons in which the Cottage faithful look up the table, rather than down? If so, Hodgson fully deserves every last pound in his as yet, verbal only, new contract. Perhaps against Bolton the fans can expect to be rewarded with a performance to match the result – if said result is positive, of course.