Club Focus – Fulham – Cottagers’ defence goes AWOL, Old Lady takes advantage

Was Turin one stop too far on Fulham’s European tour? But for David Trezeguet’s strike immediately before the interval, the Whites were in with a real chance of another famous scalp. Now, however, there is an awful lot to do in the return fixture at Craven Cottage.

Such are the fine lines in the beautiful game that last night’s visitors were agonisingly close to levelling the scores after Dickson Etuhu’s fortunate goal, as several excellent chances fell their way. As it stands, the sickeningly timed third for Juventus, barring a miraculous display in London by Fulham, could be decisive. The Turin giants, despite their perceived failures this season remain a top quality side, but they were no better than the Whites’ previous victims Shakhtar and took advantage of the visitors who appeared overwhelmed by the occasion.

Losing to Juventus is by no means an embarrassment, but the fact that it was Fulham’s customary strong point – defending – which let them down after the recent improvement in that area since January leaves a bitter taste. This writer suggested on Tuesday that Fulham could take many positives from the weekend’s FA Cup stalemate, but the usual tightness and resilience at the back went lacking in Turin, and the Old Lady was in no mood to reject any gifts. Shoddy marking from set-pieces combined fatally with the reintroduction of a non-match fit left-back and sloppy possession to produce a surprisingly comfortable night for the Italians. There was nervousness throughout the entire defence as Juventus were first to every ball in their opponents’ box. A draw would certainly have been a flattering result. Taking into account the many recent clean-sheets, this was an untypical defensive performance, perhaps, but the fans’ comedown from the high of the belief which was allowed to creep in is certainly familiar.

Danny Murphy’s injury-time red card against Donetsk was the only blemish on Fulham’s last round victory and the impact of his flailing ankle was seen in full last night. For all the players in the squad who can play in the centre of midfield, there is not one who can effectively replace the captain. And when the defence is not up to its usual standards, having a player who can spot a pass as well as Murphy is vital. For all the effort Jonathan Greening puts in, he will rarely be seen threading a needle with a through-ball. In fact, last night especially, it is unlikely he will even pass forwards.

Etuhu’s role in the midfield is the anchor-man, to break up attacks before laying off the ball to his more creative, attack-minded teammates – which is, more often than not, sideways passing. His is an essential role, but when he is teamed up with Greening as opposed to Murphy, things get very confused in the middle of the park. Too often Greening looked for the simple pass back to Etuhu or the backwards ball to the defence – there was a lack of urgency, even at 3-1, and all night there was little threat from the centre. This writer is aware that Greening is no Murphy and cannot be blamed for the way he plays the game, but the front men will not get the service they need if two deep-lying midfielders start in the middle. The weekend hinted at this point, and last night proved it. The wide men did not get the required service, which left a frustrated Damien Duff cutting the figure of a dog looking for a bone.

All things considered, Fulham were beaten by an excellent side drenched in footballing history. To even be on the same programme as Juventus was a thing of fantasy until very recently, so the result must be put into perspective. There is no reason why the Cottagers cannot win 2-0 in a week’s time and be named among seven other teams battling for the inaugural Europa League. Of course, it will have to be a performance which exceeds even the victory over Donetsk.

Before that, however, is the small matter of being included on the same programme as Manchester United, for the ninth season running. And what better way for the defence to resume normal service than by shutting out the form player of the Premier League, Wayne Rooney?

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