Club Focus – Fulham – A weary step too far for the Cottagers

If effort and adrenaline were all that was needed to win the FA Cup then Fulham would already have one hand on the trophy. Unfortunately other factors come into play on fixture number 50 of the season, and jadedness and exhaustion top the list.

Wednesday night’s FA Cup replay was just one fixture too many for Roy Hodgson’s slender-at-best squad. The real chance for a Wembley semi-final was at Craven Cottage earlier in the month but the unnecessary extra game was too much of a strain for the players who still have a potential five games to play in the Europa League – not forgetting the remaining league fixtures. The first-half performance, however, gave enough for the travelling fans to dream of a famous quarter-final win. But, ultimately, tired legs and excellent substitutions from Harry Redknapp told in a second-half so far from the first that those inside White Hart Lane could have been forgiven for thinking they were watching a different game altogether.

For everything that the opening 45 minutes was for Fulham – superb passing, dogged pressing and swift counter attacking – the second was not. Hodgson’s half-time team talk would have been limited to “just keep it up”, whereas Redknapp had license to throw anything at his disposal. Until the break, the game was the best Fulham away performance of the season, but afterwards the match reverted to form. For reasons unbeknown to this writer, as soon as the match restarted the Whites were misplacing passes, mistiming tackles and leaving Tottenham players wide open. When the equaliser went in just a minute after the second half started, the momentum swung Spurs’ way, and the result never looked in doubt when Fulham’s tiredness started to have an effect. Suddenly calm passing out of defence gave way to hurried, sliced clearances and the home side’s midfield took a grasp on the game – and this is where the battle was ultimately lost.

When the Whites went in holding a 1-0 lead, the midfield had been given a fairly free pitch to play on – Dickson Etuhu and Danny Murphy used the space they were allowed brilliantly, feeding through balls and passes to the overlapping wingers for fun. The holes in the middle were such that even the wingers, Damien Duff and Simon Davies, got more joy by coming inside the entire half, as emphasised by Davies’ stinging shot from the centre at 0-0 and Duff’s run through the heart of the pitch to set up Bobby Zamora for the opener. Murphy was winning (albeit unchallenged) headers and the habitually defensive-minded Etuhu was even finding himself just outside the Spurs box on regular occasions. Hodgson’s midfield set-up was working perfectly, even if the opposition were helping out somewhat. Indeed, at half-time, why would the manager want, or need, to change anything in a side that was performing so well? Unfortunately, when his opposite number’s hand was forced into (admittedly a limited amount of available) alterations or face elimination from the FA Cup, Hodgson’s two banks of four strategy was susceptible to the doubling-up of Tottenham’s wide men and were forced back by their new-found vigour in midfield. Ironically, had the first 45 minutes not been quite so strong for the Whites, the second would unlikely have been so bad.

However, as has been the case in most of Fulham’s away defeats this term, the high-tempo pressure game employed by Redknapp in the second half was too much for the visitors, but so many positives can be taken from the performance until half-time. Again Zoltan Gera linked Zamora to both the central-midfielders and the wide-men, and the switching of Davies and Duff throughout caused havoc for Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Vedran Corluka. Nothing needs to change for Saturday against a Hull side who are likely to scrap rather than pass Fulham off the park. Should the Whites perform from the start again then Iain Dowie’s men may struggle to break them down as Spurs managed all too frequently for comfort.

It was roughly this time last season that Fulham suddenly started winning away from home and Saturday’s fixture represents as good an opportunity as any to sneak past the golden 40-point mark. That is, of course, if Hodgson’s doesn’t intend to rest a couple of starters for Thursday’s Europa League quarter-final. After Wednesday, there are several who deserve a week off.

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