Club Focus – Fulham – The sleepy Second City

Next time Fulham travel to Birmingham, it would be advisable for them not to allow the Sandman on the team coach.

In the last season and a quarter, the Whites have travelled four times to the Second City, and have produced a staggering zero goals in those matches combined. Unsurprisingly, they have lost three of those encounters, with the only point coming in a 0-0 draw at Villa Park last season. That draw was the only match where Fulham actually played from whistle to whistle – the other three were languid, complacent performances in which the Whites were deservedly beaten. Saturday’s ‘contest’ – on the back of a break for the majority of the team – should have been different, but it was anything but.

So many comparisons can be drawn with the 1-0 defeat to Birmingham City at the weekend and last season’s trip to the Hawthorns – which ended in the same result against the now-Championship side West Brom, that it could have been the same match. It was a result which supporters of Fulham knew was inevitable from the way their team played from the kick-off – the kind of result which Whites fans have become accustomed to just as performances, and expectations, start to rise.

The most disappointing aspect of the whole weekend was, perhaps, that the players failed to deliver in the area that Roy Hodgson pinpointed pre-match as being most important – fighting spirit, a trait Birmingham have in abundance. But perhaps Hodgson saw it coming: “When that guard is relaxed then the right hook is just around the corner so one has to be very careful.” And relaxed – lazy, even – is exactly how his team looked, even when the home side sat back on their goal and invited pressure.

The truth is, the players on the pitch were not those who thrive off hurling balls into the box and dribbling from all angles, which is exactly what Saturday’s second half called for. The midfield especially, lacking a first-choice in every position, did not have the creativity such a situation demands. All that was needed was a defence-splitting through ball or some direct running from out wide and the Blues’ back 10 would have crumbled. The injured Danny Murphy can provide the former with his eyes closed, and Damien Duff – rested after Ireland’s midweek heartbreak – and Clint Dempsey – stuck in his unnatural striking role due to Erik Nevland’s illness – will supply the latter all day long but, such was the personnel available to Hodgson, those players were not able to make an impact. When Duff did make a belated appearance, the team picked up, but most of the damage was already done and no amount of Duff’s making up for lost time or Bobby Zamora’s tirelessness could have salvaged a result at that stage.

Yes, key injuries played a big part in the weekend’s result, but the squad is there for that exact purpose and the replacements were still snoozing on Saturday – which was unexpected. At least there isn’t time for the Fulham players to nod off before their next game, as Blackburn visit the Cottage on Wednesday – a trip that was more than satisfactory for Rovers last season. Unfortunately, this also means that Murphy might well still not make the team, although there is no reason for Duff not to start – unless, of course, he is too upset by the stick he is receiving from his teammates for his Parisian tears. Expect the Irish star to impress against his former club, should Hodgson give him the nod, as he looks to recover from the effect of Thierry Henry’s hand.

Fulham struggled against the physicality and work rate of Alex Mcleish’s side, and in a Sam Allardyce outfit they will be up against the master of the trade – and so there is a lot to learn in just a few days on the training field. Hodgson pointed out after the defeat to Rovers last season that Blackburn had more strength and energy, so he will certainly be expecting an improvement, and in a physical game, Brede Hangeland is always vital to the outcome. Reportedly very close to signing a new Fulham deal, the Norwegian will be expected by his manager to lead by example and shut out Blackburn’s physical front-line, or else there will be plenty of sleepless nights for the Whites faithful.

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