Hands up – who thought at 3-1 it was going to be comfortable? This writer is certain that every Fulham fan has their arms firmly by their side. Ironically, so did Chris Smalling when he was adjudged to have handled the ball that actually hit his stomach.
After going in at the break two up, and then restoring the two-goal cushion, Whites fans’ nerves should have been spared a jangling for once. But again they had to watch their side hang on for the result. When the final whistle blew, however, the Cottage faithful could reflect on just how well the mix of fringe and first-team players had performed so far in a competition Roy Hodgson admitted himself is being treated as nothing more than a “bonus”.
And the players left their best performance in the group until last. One of the first-teamers, Bobby Zamora, proved exactly why he is currently the most talked about man in SW6 with a first-half brace, but it was a man on the fringes who deserves the most praise upon the players’ return from Switzerland. That man is Bjorn Helge Riise. It may be Zamora’s name on the score-sheet, but his goals would not have come about if not for Riise’s perfect crossing on the night. The first was curled across that six-yard area goalkeepers hate so much, and the second was floated on to Zamora’s head – there was no doubt with either finish.
Riise has been used almost exclusively in the Europa League since joining the club, and has improved in every game. Against Basel he was deployed on the right – as opposed to the normal central-midfield slot – and the Norwegian showed his determination for a Premier League appearance by setting up two and having another assist ruled out for a marginal offside – Zamora again with the finish. Hodgson must surely have noted Riise’s class. In any recent season, the 26-year-old’s European performances would place him very close to the starting line-up, but, as it happens, the wings are now the most hotly contested positions on the pitch. He cannot expect to usurp either Clint Dempsey or Damien Duff, and the form of Zoltan Gera means the Hungarian – despite his natural position being just off the forwards – is ahead of Riise in the pecking order too. Throw in a fully-fit Simon Davies, and you can understand if Hodgson and Riise are having respective headaches regarding the latter’s inclusion in the squad.
So, from second-string players to a word on second-rate officials. Again, Fulham were harshly treated by the assistants UEFA deem not good enough for the Champions League, except this time it was the second (or third) official rather than the new additions who is to blame – and, more importantly, it did not cost points. This writer will forgive the (very close) offside at 0-0, but to overturn the referee’s (correct) decision of a corner, and instead insist on a penalty for an exceptionally harsh handball against Smalling is deplorable. Luckily the Whites held out for the win, but UEFA need to get their officials up to standard, or there will be some very high-profile incidents throughout the rest of the tournament. Refereeing must be consistent, even if this competition is second-fiddle to the Premier League, but for now the talking point is the performance of the players.
Oftentimes, when competition ‘priorities’ are considered, the blend of first-choice and reserve players means a disjointed showing as those chosen are not used to each other, but try telling that to Danny Murphy, Stephen Kelly and Gera who combined seamlessly for the brilliant third goal. Indeed, Hodgson appears to have the squad he wants – players, such as Riise and Gera, who can come into the team and do a job without rusting the well-oiled machine. Hodgson is playing the Riise card to perfection. He now has a squad player chomping at the bit for a place in the big league – and helping his team into the knockout stages of Europe while he is at it.
On Friday, the Whites discover their reward for a gutsy showing in the face of schoolboy refereeing, with Juventus and Atletico Madrid offering the possibility of further glamour on what is turning out to be a successful European tour. The busy festive league schedule is up next, however, and you can be sure if Hodgson has injury or fitness concerns over any of his first-choice wingers, he will let go of Riise’s leash.