It started with a blip against Aston Villa, but Fulham’s flurry of home games – three of the last four, with three in a row to come – has seen them get their season back on track after a disastrous January.
The last two home fixtures have brought six points but, more importantly, Tuesday’s visit of Burnley brought a massively improved performance from the attacking players. So the league campaign has been reignited, and now the Whites face an FA Cup tie followed by a huge Europa League clash to completely put early 2010’s away-day shambles behind them. Tuesday’s match probably said as much about Burnley’s abysmal record on the road as it did about Fulham’s strength at home. But the job still had to be done, and it was carried out almost perfectly.
Firstly, the recently watertight defence had to remain that way and secondly, the forwards had to start creating far more opportunities. Both happened, as the Clarets attack rarely troubled Mark Schwarzer, yet at the other end Brian Jensen more than earned his wages. In fact, on a different day for the Dane, Burnley could have shipped far more goals than the three that hit the back of their net – it made a nice change for Fulham fans to bemoan how well the opponents’ goalkeeper played, rather than be frustrated at him being underworked. Jensen made a string of top-class saves at various stages throughout the night – a strong arm on a Dickson Etuhu piledriver and a reaction stop to get down from a close-range Bobby Zamora effort the picks of the bunch. At the other end the big Australian was commanding in the air, and alert the few times he was called upon. It was the two big men up front who were busiest on the night instead.
Roy Hodgson, whenever possible, usually opts for the big man/little man striker combination. On Tuesday David Elm got his second consecutive Premier League start, but, this time, instead of being Zamora’s replacement as target man, he was played alongside the Whites’ top scorer in a somewhat untried big man/big man partnership. This could not have been more effective, as both men took turns holding the ball up, laying it off and working the channels. The end result was a goal and an assist for the Swede, and a goal and an (semi-) assist for the Englishman. It was an effective combination against a leaky defence, but there was an important change in the midfield which helped in the creating department.
In Tuesday’s Club Focus, this writer discussed playing a natural central midfielder instead of the versatile Chris Baird. Hodgson, on Tuesday, started Etuhu alongside Danny Murphy, with Baird dropping into the right of defence. The performance of Murphy was remarkable. He played further up the pitch than in most games recently, with Etuhu covering the pitch behind him and spraying simple passes to his teammates. Murphy’s mindset was to create and attack, everything else was left to the capable Etuhu, and their impressive partnership of last season returned. Etuhu’s power freed up space for his midfield partner, who even managed to get forward enough for the opening goal. The captain has recently blown hot and cold, but against Burnley he was on fire, and fully deserved to open the scoring. It appears as Hodgson begins to slowly get his preferred squad back, these small improvements in key areas will see Fulham begin to dominate at the Cottage once more, just as they did against Manchester United before the physio’s room turned into a Heathrow departure lounge. Things must be looking up if even Simon Davies managed to complete more than 45 minutes of football.
Hodgson will most likely keep most of Tuesday’s starting XI for the FA Cup tie with Notts County this Sunday, but even though the visitors are three divisions below Fulham, no-one should expect another comfortable 3-0 win. The most important thing about the tie will be for the Whites to carry on the improvement shown against Burnley – and for all players to escape unscathed. If the players can get three consecutive homes wins under their belts, then Shakhtar Donetsk will find themselves facing a real European battle. Despite the five-week-long form downturn since Christmas, a return to the homely (not for the visiting teams, of course) surroundings of their Cottage by the Thames has proven Fulham are nicely poised in every major competition they have entered this season.