It only took 22, 000 Fulham fans to remind the referee there were two sides on the field on Saturday.
“You’re not fit to referee” bellowed from the stands when Jamie Carragher escaped unpunished after throwing himself into Bobby Zamora in a tackle that would not have been out of place at Twickenham. For that he should probably have seen red and conceded a penalty, but that incident has long been forgotten as Carragher now plays victim for his eventual (read – inevitable) red card late on. Maybe he did get the ball, but not before wrestling Zamora to stand any chance of doing so. The truth is, even before the Reds captain walked, Fulham had already dealt the necessary damage – after all, it was 2-1 to the Whites before the numbers became uneven.
Zamora was at the heart of most of that damage and Carragher, along with his defensive partner Sotirios Kygiakos, simply could not deal with the striker’s power. The big man showed every ability that Roy Hodgson reaffirms weekly, and even added a goal. It must be a joy to be a striker alongside Zamora but Diomansy Kamara – his partner at kick-off – despite being full of running, could not take advantage of his teammate’s enterprise. As such, the home side created very few chances in the first half, with Damien Duff’s excellent centre for Zamora the only exception. That all changed when Erik Nevland came off the bench for the second 45 – a substitution that was forced due to an injury to Kamara, but one that ultimately won the game for Fulham.
This writer has said before that Zamora and Nevland would complement each other perfectly, with the latter playing off the former’s flick-ons, but they have had little pitch time together. Touted by many experts after the game as the Man of the Match, which is high praise considering he was sitting for the duration of the first half, the Norwegian turned the game entirely on its head and made Fulham look the most likely to take the game. What Nevland lacks in pace he makes up for with his footballing brain. His positional sense is second to none at Fulham, constantly playing off the shoulders of defenders, and he knows exactly where to place both himself and the ball in any given situation. He was involved in both second-half goals, and each one emphasises what the striker brings to the team.
The one he scored could be shown to children as a perfect example of where to stand in the box to poach a goal, as he made himself available in front of the defender, to squeeze the ball past Pepe Reina with his right heel. In the box he has that selfishness that all great finishers possess, but outside it, his awareness of his teammates comes into play. Nevland made use of the space he was allowed to draw the defence towards him before slotting the ball, left-footed, through to Clint Dempsey in what was an excellent team goal following Zamora’s flick-on. The way the Norwegian plays cannot be taught, he is instinctive, and he is exactly what Saturday’s game required to break it from its stalemate.
If Benitez is to be believed, however, the game was far from a stalemate. He thinks Liverpool were dominant. If having more possession than a Colombian drug lord but doing nothing with it is the aim of football, then the Spaniard is correct. In truth, Fulham defended from the front and pressed Liverpool all over the pitch, therefore not allowing their more illustrious opponents to use the ball they saw so much of (64% of possession overall). For a team to be dominant, they would need to register more than the one shot on target, so rightly Liverpool’s intricate triangle passing around the centre-circle was not rewarded, but Fulham, for all their tempo and pressing, were – and Roy Hodgson’s tactical input should not go understated. His opposite number did not have a response to the way the Cottagers played and so Hodgson inevitably ended up victorious. But, perhaps ironically, would the manager have brought on Nevland early enough if Kamara hadn’t picked up a knock?
The Whites, after getting through games against Roma, Manchester City and now Liverpool unscathed, now enter a period of ‘winnable’ league games, but Fulham fans know more than anyone else that such a word does not enter their vocabulary. Hodgson’s tactics have stood the test of the big European and Premier League sides, but how will they now fare against lesser opponents? The fact is no-one in SW6 knows, but one thing is for sure, Nevland has given his boss a real selection headache.