Club Focus – Fulham – Just enough improvement

There was little, if any, improvement in the performance but Fulham were, fortunately, up against a team with even less luck than themselves. The performance of Portsmouth’s players and fans on a wet Wednesday night by the Thames suggests there are far more deserving teams to go down, but the Whites simply took advantage of the visitors’ lack of confidence to steal the three points.

Despite there not being much to warrant that victory, there were improvements in several key areas, progress which a victory and a clean sheet should help see more of. Nicky Shorey at left-back gave, after a few nervous early minutes, one of the best Fulham debuts seen in recent times. The central-defensive partnership of Brede Hangeland and Aaron Hughes was back, and effective. And there was some fight – perhaps not from the midfield, until Kagiso Dikgacoi came on, but the strikers refused to be bullied out of the game as they had been in four of the five consecutive defeats prior to the visit of Pompey.

The on-loan left-back, Shorey, almost single-handedly nullified an entire flank (with some excellent support from the makeshift left-winger Jonathan Greening), which meant the south coast side had only the middle or the other side of the pitch – rather unsuccessfully manned by Stephen Kelly – in which to attack. In recent Club Focuses this writer has bemoaned the lack of John Pantsil and Paul Konchesky for the lack of width going forward. Shorey, as well as shoring up the flank from attack, overlapped Greening intelligently and effectively, and had the stamina to get back into position whenever any one of his teammates predictably lost possession. He offered himself as an outlet and put an equal effort into both the defensive and attacking aspects. If such performances continue then Roy Hodgson will undoubtedly be looking to make the deal permanent, and Konchesky could finally have some much-needed competition for his position

It has been a while since Hangeland and Hughes have been partnered together in their rightful positions. Hughes has recently been played on the right, or alongside Chris Smalling, and the defence has looked far from comfortable. Alongside each other at the heart of Fulham’s defence for the majority of last season, the club had the fourth-best defence in the Premier League. Injuries have affected the consistency the Whites defence had last term, but Wednesday night saw both centre-backs return almost to their best. Hangeland hardly missed a header all night, and Hughes was first to everything on the ground. Although Portsmouth had a lot of possession and passed well, their chances were mainly from distance or deep crosses – Fulham’s back two stopped the rest. Hangeland had looked somewhat out-of-sorts without his regular partner, and Hughes was far too defensive-minded to be successful at right-back. now, back together, the Whites’ recent appalling defensive record should improve – and, as importantly, set-pieces were once again dealt with without any fuss.

Hodgson’s other transfer window loan signing, Stefano Okaka from Roma, also made his debut against Pompey. While he did not take to his new teammates as comfortably as Shorey, and was guilty of a horror-miss in the first half, overall the young Italian impressed, for his strength and pace more than anything else. He is perhaps not the ideal partner for the equally strong Bobby Zamora, as between them they are not as clinical as others at the club, but they were no pushovers on Wednesday night, which made for a refreshing change for the Cottage faithful, who have in recent weeks seen their team bullied by opposing defences. Okaka has a good touch, and more than his fair share of strength, but will need to work on his finishing and the defending from the front which his teammates all offer. He at least did a great job of softening up the Portsmouth back line for Erik Nevland, who changed the game when he came off the bench for the final 25 minutes.

The Whites were perhaps outplayed at times in the middle, at least until Dikgacoi came on as the ball-winner, but a vast improvement in the defence helped them steal an undeserved three points. That said, a win from anywhere was exactly what the doctor ordered. As Fulham edge towards the points necessary for relegation to be forgotten about, overall performances should start to improve. Once goals stop going in at the wrong end, the attacking section can work on their main responsibility.

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