For a team that, prior to Saturday’s match at Craven Cottage, had conceded 11 goals in three Premier League fixtures, a Bolton clean-sheet was not on the minds of anyone involved with the sport. But for 75 minutes – solely due to the commanding performances of Gretar Steinsson, Gary Cahill and Jussi Jaaskelainen – it looked likely.
Fulham’s performance was the opposite to the one against Blackburn three days prior, yet almost ended with three fewer points for the home side. Such an undeserved result from such a good display is one of the enigmas that makes football so watchable, but it is a mystery which Fulham suffer from with alarming regularity. Yes, sometimes it goes the other way, like last Wednesday’s result, but that is the exception, rather than the rule. Already this season, Fulham have outplayed Arsenal only for Vito (who) Mannone to steal victory for his side, and have passed Roma off the park only for a match official to intervene to save the Italian side. And, on Saturday, the Whites almost suffered the same fate against Gary Megson’s Bolton.
Until Ivan Klasnic’s goal – which was, admittedly, very well-taken (albeit coming from the most glorious of top-flight football tactics, the long throw) – on 35 minutes, spectators could have been forgiven for thinking they were watching a Craven Cottage training session. That is except for the odd rash lunge and flash of the referee’s yellow card as Bolton brought their A-game to the banks of the Thames. With Fulham having almost three times the amount of successful passes than Bolton, the visitors’ game plan was apparent.
Until Damien Duff’s brilliantly worked equaliser 15 minutes from time, it looked for all the world Megson would take a most ugly of wins back to Bolton with him. But this is a Roy Hodgson-managed side that does not know when it is beaten – even if the players, and everyone watching, knew they should not even have been contemplating the prospect of a defeat. A Fulham side from a bygone era would have given up the points, but this one will keep working – from Clint Dempsey up top to Brede Hangeland at the back, these players consistently battle to the bitter end.
And none fought harder at the weekend than Duff. The Irishman seems to be involved in every goal the Whites score, and his input in Saturday’s second half was what squeezed the point from a game in which his side looked set to end up with zero. Many in the football world raised their eyebrows when Hodgson snapped up Duff in the summer, pointing towards his years at Newcastle as proof the winger was ‘past it’. Yet already he has salvaged many points for his new side on his return to west London – his rekindled love for the game and his performances on the pitch firmly sticking two fingers up at anyone who questioned Hodgson’s eye for a bargain. On Saturday, a touch of class was required to beat the imperious Jaaskelainen – the best of his numerous saves coming from Erik Nevland’s left-footed drive which this writer still cannot believe didn’t result in home celebrations – and a touch of class was exactly what the former Chelsea man provided, as he drove the ball, right-footed, beyond the Finn’s magnetic gloves.
With Demspey currently running hot-and-cold in his more unfamiliar striking role, and fixtures coming thick and fast, Duff must continue his form, at least until the Whites’ mounting injury list – currently as long as Mark Schwarzer’s arm – subsides somewhat. Andy Johnson, already having missed more than a month through injury, has undergone exploratory surgery on his groin and is out until further notice, as last season’s injury-luck is now catching up with the squad – in particular, the strikers.
Danny Murphy, however, is due back any minute, and should slot straight back in Jonathan Greening’s place. The on-loan midfielder has done little to prove he is worthy of Murphy’s central-midfield berth – his partnership in the middle with Chris Baird has rarely seen forages into the opponents’ halves, despite Greening being the more attacking-minded of the two. In fact, Greening’s replacement of Murphy has only proved to spur on the wide-men, who have fortunately answered the call, becoming the main source of attack in recent weeks.
This coming Thursday’s return to Europa League action may be too soon for the return of Fulham’s captain, but the players who are selected must continue to battle as they have been, or face elimination from the tournament. In CSKA, the Whites are faced with a very winnable game. Then again, Saturday’s was too, so who knows what the result might be?