It might have taken a while coming – with the team’s points total having been stuck in the late 30s for several weeks – but the ‘magic 40’ barrier was finally breached on Sunday with a solid comeback victory over Wigan. The focus can now turn completely towards the Europa League.
Most defences, in fact every one in the Premier League this season, have coped with the threat of Jason Scotland, but Fulham, as they so frequently do to out-of-sorts forwards, provided the big man with his first top-flight league goal. This was, barring one player, the same back line that struggled against the Trinidadian in last year’s FA Cup, while he was playing for Swansea. Despite Brede Hangeland and Mark Schwarzer doing their utmost, the back five were not at their best in the first 45 and Wigan were deservedly in front. And it was at half time when a section of the Craven Cottage faithful echoed their disgust, which riled Roy Hodgson in his full-time press conference. While the fans were most likely booing what they thought was an appalling refereeing display, the manager suggested hearing boos can be detrimental to the players’ own performances and, in this writers’ opinion, the ever-so-rare booing is best left to subside and not be highlighted in the media. Whether what he heard from the stands had an effect on his team-talk or not, the home side improved dramatically in the second half to turn the result completely around.
Just as Harry Redknapp in the recent FA Cup replay turned the game on its head thanks to his half-time substitutions, Hodgson brought on Stefano Okaka for David Elm at the break and the Italian took just two minutes to bring the Whites level. Every time the on-loan striker has been brought on as a substitute he has shown enthusiasm and energy that can often be lacking before his introduction, and Sunday’s game was no exception. Where Elm was lethargic, Okaka was full of running, and where the Swede was wasteful with his few chances, the Italian was clinical. Strangely, the same about coming off the bench could have been said of Elm earlier in the season. Just a few short months ago, Elm was a used sub for several games running and his performances earned him a short spell in the starting line-up – and that was when he faded. Okaka has started a couple of games for the Cottagers but it seems, for now at least, he too is more effective when entering later in the game. It has been a season where second halves have far out-performed the first, so having a boat-load of super-subs but few effective starting strikers is fitting, but Okaka and Elm must now look to prove themselves ahead of next season in case of injury to Bobby Zamora or the – again excellent – Zoltan Gera. Okaka, unfortunately, cannot play in Europe for the rest of the season, so the fitness of the two star forwards is essential to Fulham’s continued continental success. And if the second-half defence turns up for the full 90 minutes this Thursday, then the slender 2-1 lead could well be enough to see the Whites in a European semi-final.
Hangeland was at his imperious best against Wigan and will need to be again as Edin Dzeko somewhat bullied him in last Thursday’s encounter. Had it not been for the late goal, which came about from some slack marking from an 89th-minute corner, Fulham might already have one foot in the draw. Now, however, it will take a lot of composed football (and probably some heroics, a la Shakhtar leg two) to overcome a solid attacking Wolfsburg outfit. With any lingering thoughts of relegation now firmly put to bed, the team that starts in Germany will be the strongest possible to Hodgson, and – sorry West Ham – if league line-ups have to suffer (slightly, as there were still plenty of first-teamers against Hull, remember) for the greater good of fighting for a trophy, then that is what will be done.
There have, arguably, been some more attractive cities on the glamorous European tour thus far, but 90 minutes in Wolfsburg is all that stands between Fulham and a Europa League semi-final – which would be even more remarkable than the current feat of just the quarters. There have also been stronger teams faced, but a 4-1 win over Juventus will not get the Whites through 90 minutes of nail-biting football. Teamwork, form and a little bit of luck, however, will.