It sounds like a joke, but, unfortunately, there is no punch line. Again Fulham could not hold a lead against Roma, and again it is largely down to the man who is paid to make correct decisions. Yes, Erik Nevland’s tackle was from behind, but there was minimal – if any – contact and absolutely zero malice (it was the striker’s shin that grazed Daniele De Rossi). It is not a red card in any refereeing manual – and, just as it did when the two sides met at Craven Cottage, a dubious sending off turned the game in Roma’s favour. Paul Konchesky’s sending off was a yellow at worst, too – but by then the damage was done.
When the Norwegian came on at half-time, with his side holding a 1-0 lead, Fulham fans were expecting an impact from their impact-sub – perhaps similar to the one he managed against Liverpool. And they were right to expect that, only his effect on this game was far less positive – and only four minutes long, as he returned to the bench almost immediately. Holding a slight lead in Rome is hard enough at the best of times, but after being harshly denied the chance of even numbers, that task becomes almost impossible. The home side were always going to throw everything at Fulham in the second half, but with fewer players for the entirety of that onslaught, the visitors were never going to hold on.
For the last two Premier League seasons, Fulham has been in the top two in the fair play table. Evidence, then, that the Whites are not a dirty side by any stretch of the imagination. Nor was there any intent in any challenges made last night. Why, then, does the foul count column read seven to Roma and a massive 23 to Fulham? There will always be complaints from one side or the other about refereeing decisions and performances, but this is perhaps the first time when pundits and the media – even from the opposition’s country – share the view that the simply wrong 49th minute decision did change the result. This writer will never complain about a Premier League referee again after seeing UEFA’s counterparts in action – at this rate Michel Platini won’t have to invent more rules to make sure the big names qualify. The cheer from the 2000 travelling fans – akin to a goal celebration – when Fulham won a free-kick on 64 minutes, sums up what the Londoners, and indeed anyone watching, thought of the referee’s performance.
On the positive front, Fulham, at times, played football that would not have been out of place at the Emirates – even playing on the same pitch as, let alone carving open, a side of Roma’s quality is testament to how much this club has progressed in Roy Hodgson’s tenure. The manager himself made the excellent point post-match that, 11 vs. 11, Fulham were by far superior. On this performance, Fulham deserves to be in a European competition but, barring a mini-miracle, now looks set to go out in the first stage.
If the Whites do not make it out of Group E, then it would be an injustice to the entire squad who have performed admirably in each match so far. It is, admittedly, scant consolation to take only the performances instead of at least one (deserved) Roma win from two games, but just maybe Lady Luck is saving herself for Premier League outings, without which trips to Rome would be nothing but a fantasy.
Hopefully, those that went to Rome will see a similar performance in the not-so glamorous city of Wigan on Sunday. When teams are hard done by in previous games, the next result usually only goes one of two ways – a backlash and a comfortable win, or capitulation and a resounding defeat. This does depend somewhat on which Wigan side turns up. At times, Roberto Martinez’ men have looked unstoppable, and other times the exact opposite. Bobby Zamora should return to the team for the trip north, and his strength could be key as his side strive to get the results their performances deserve.
It is time to move on from the red of Roma, of the referee’s card, and of the faces of furious fans, unless, of course, a red mist follows the team coach to Wigan on Sunday – in which case, anything could happen – another two sendings off, or even a Zamora hat-trick.