March Madness

It’s been an odd month for Fulham. On the one hand, they beat Juventus to get to the last 8 in the Europa League. Wolfsburg are up next, and the ticket is already secured for the Cottage game on Thursday night.

On the other hand, that is the only game that Fulham have won since February 21st. In the league Fulham have lost the last three now that they have fallen to Hull City today. Spurs edged them out of the FA Cup thanks to a superb comeback in the second half of the replay (and a loss of momentum from Fulham after a great start in the first 45).

Bizzarely, it seems to be that Fulham’s form varies by month this Season. In even-numbered months they do well, and in odd numbered months they slump:

August: Won 3, Lost 3, Scored 7, Conceded 6, Qualified for Europa Groups
September: Won 1, Drew 1, Lost 3, Scored 5, Conceded 7, Knocked out of the League Cup
October: Won 3, Drew 3, Scored 11, Conceded 6
November: Won 1, Drew 2, Lost 2, Scored 6, Conceded 5
December: Won 4, Drew 2, Lost 1, Scored 10, Conceded 5, Qualified for Europa KO rounds
January: Won 2, Lost 4, Scored 6, Conceded 10, Only wins in FA cup against lower division sides
February: Won 5, Drew 3, Scored 13, Conceded 3, Busiest month by far, and beat UEFA Cup holders
March: Won 1, Drew 1, Lost 5, Scored 7, Conceded 14, Out of the FA Cup, but still in Europe

The last few weeks will have taken a lot out of the squad, and there’s more to come with the Wolfsburg games and the rescheduled game against Stoke to play in the midweek. Away form is pretty poor still. All season, Fulham have won in only four games on the road, and only one of those has come in the Premier League (Portsmouth, on day one). Looking at the remaining away games (Wolfsburg 8 April, Liverpool 11 April, Everton 24 April and Arsenal 9 May), I can’t see that changing much.

And so Fulham find themselves in 11th place in the table. 38 points so far renders them pretty safe and the last home league games are all winnable (Wigan 4 April, Stoke 14 April, Wolves 17 April, West Ham 1 May), so while there’s not many ways to climb much above 9th or 10th, the Whites should not slip back much further.

Still, at the beginning of the season, the worry was that Europe would prove such a drain that Fulham would struggle. Getting to the Quarter Finals in the Europa and to the same round of the FA Cup shows that the club has the quality of players and the management to move forward, and so next season they should really be looking at a solid top-half finish.

They’ve only gone and bloody done it! Fulham 4 – 1 Juventus

Fulham win 5-4 on aggregate.

Who’d have thought this would be happening after last week? Or five minutes into tonight’s match even?

The past few weeks have not been brilliant for the Whites, with 0-0 draws away to Hull in the League and at home to Spurs in the FA Cup. The game at Turin was characterised by fairly poor defending from Fulham – each of the Juve goals came from errors. Even the away goal was a but of a fluke, with Etuhu’s shot going well wide before spinning and bobbling off a defender.

But for the home leg, even after the conceded goal early on, Fulham never gave up, getting one back within minutes with Zamora allowed space in the middle of the box to slot one in. The Juventus defence seemed to rely more on shirt-pulling and holding than on legal methods, but the officials seemed oblivious to several clear penalty offences. Even so, Fulham got two key decisions perhaps unfairly in their favour – Cannovaro was sent off for a foul that was marginal and was not at a clear goal-scoring opportunity, and Diego gave away a penalty through handball at very close range (mind you, I think this was an ok call, as he did go in with his hand moving up and out). Still, Fulham hit the woodwork twice in the first half, and were making use of the extra man.

Zamora had an outstanding game, setting up the second goal with a deft chip to Davies who was able to put it across for Gera to knock in from 4 yards. Gera also took the penalty from Diego’s handball that put the tie level.

The latter part of the second half was in danger of petering out a bit, as Juventus pulled back and tried to defend, hoping for a chance on the break (pretty much textbook Italian play). But when Dempsey came on as an attacking change for Kelly, the pace of the Fulham team did lift, and the American – who was at one point thought to be injured for the season – was in a great position to score the winner. And it was a classic goal, a deft chip past the keeper into the corner. He’s going to be a bit of a handful if he plays like that in the World Cup.

Juventus were the better team by far last week. But Fulham excelled tonight, and Juve were their own worst enemy. My head is still spinning. Two years ago we were dead certs for relegation, and now we’re in the Quarter Finals of a major trophy.

Shaktar Donetsk 1 – 1 Fulham (2-3 on aggregate)

I just managed to get home in time for this one on ITV4, and spent the first half an hour wishing I’d stayed at work. Donetsk came out with their tails up and threatened from the start. Schwartzer had to make quite a few saves, and the Ukrainian team seemed to have solid control of the game. The home side only needed to win 1-0 to win on the ‘away goals’ rule, and it looked like they could get that and more.

However, with what was Fulham’s first proper chance of the match, a Duff free kick was met by Brede Hangeland’s head and the ball ended up in the net. With that, the tie was 3-1 in Fulham’s favour, and the away goal had been cancelled out. Shaktar had to score three in order to win outright, and two to force extra time. They could feel aggrieved perhaps at the seemingly innocuous challenge that led to the free kick in the first place, but Fulham had some pretty bad luck with officials in the games against Roma last year.

The goal seemed to wake the Whites up a bit, and the play then became more even, as the midfield were able to close down the game a little more. for the remainder of the half.

For the second half, the pattern of play was for Fulham to defend as deeply as possible, while Shaktar tried their same methods over and over to try to score. While the visitors were well organised in defence, and had the odd break, they could not stop Donetsk from pulling a goal back halfway through the second period. Zamora was replaced by Elm for the last 20 minutes, and he did seem to lift the Fulham play a little, as he and Gera were able to jink forward every now and then. The midfield and defensive lines held well too, and were soaking much of the pressure up.

With five minutes to go, and after a period fraught with danger, the pressure suddenly dropped, and Fulham finally got to put in some possession play as they tried to hold the aggregate lead. When 90 minutes had gone, and as four minutes of time to play were indicated, Gera got hold of a misplaced pass and came within inches of slotting in a winner. Ilsinho was lucky to get away with only a yellow card for a foul on Duff that was a kind of body check combined with a cuff to the head. Then Murphy was sent off for a pointless foul in the corner on a different Donetsk player, meaning his influential leadership would be missing for the next game.

With only a minute or so left, Shaktar didn’t have time to make the extra man pay, and so the tie ended 3-2 on aggregate. Fulham had knocked out the holders, a team with prodigious skill and pace, and held them off in a ground where they’d beaten the likes of Arsenal in previous years.

I don’t yet know who the next opponents for Fulham will be. Chances are it’ll be Juventus, who are a goal up with home advantage against Ajax. Either way, it will be a fantastic opportunity for the Whites to show their mettle against one of the most famous clubs in Europe.

COYW!

Fulham 2 – 1 Birmingham City

A win pulled at the brink out of a possible disaster. Baird conceded an own-goal on three minutes, which is probably had luck on a player who’s been playing out of position to cover for the loss of  Pantsil and Konchesky in defence for a while now.

Birmingham are a tough team to beat, and being behind makes the task even harder. It seems that hard work in breaking down one of the better defences in the league was what paid off, although the equaliser came from a superb Duff strike.

I’m sure that City will feel hard done by about the nature of the winner – a Zamora free-kick after three minutes of added time – but the lad is really on fire at the moment. Whether he’s good enough to get a place in the England World Cup squad remains to be seen, but he’s carried on the form that he had before he was injured after Xmas. 15 goals already in the season, some against European sides. The last two goals were the ones that made the difference between a draw and victory.

Fulham 2-1 Shaktar Donetsk

A good win, but I think there are going to be some worries about whether it is enough to take to Ukraine. Shaktar are a talented side, who play a very good passing game and move about quickly off the ball. They certainly didn’t come to England to defend…

Fulham started excellently, by attacking from the kick off and scoring through a Gera diagonal shot on two minutes. However, they soon settled back, and allowed the visitors to come forward. The main problem for the Whites was keeping possession, and that led to several quick breaks. The equaliser came as no great surprise, really, and could prove costly as an away goal.

Hodgson must have had a few words to say at half time, because the team came out with a much better approach and played a bit wider. Shaktar remained keen all the way through, but by defending further up the field, their threat was confined to the breaks, and it seemed that (Etuhu aside, who had an unusually poor game) Fulham were keeping hold of the ball far more confidently. That led to more periods of pressure, and the Whites certainly looked more likely to score. Zamora’s winner was a well-taken strike, and it felt like Fulham could push for more.

Up for the Cup

The 4-0 win against Notts County was a bit over the top really. The visitors played well and it just happened that Elm, Zamora and Okaka hit their stride at to set up and score as they did. All credit to County, the result flattered Fulham.

But now that the Whites are into the Quarter-Finals, they have finally met top-flight opposition, in the shape of either Bolton or Spurs. Both would present a really tough test, and a bit of a dilemma for Hodgson – should he put out a team to go all out to win and risk a wobble in the League? Or should he hold back a bit and risk a loss of confidence.  Ach, I really couldn’t take the pressure of that kind of job…

But now we have the game I’ve been looking forward to since the last big European game – Shaktar Donestk at home in the Europa Cup.

The Ukrainian side are top notch. They won the UEFA Cup last season, and have some pretty good quality Brazilian players amongst their mainly home-grown squad. They lost only one game in the Group Stage, and topped Group J with 13 points and 14 goals scored. Fulham will need to get a decent result tomorrow because Shaktar are pretty solid at home.

But hopefully we will be behind the lads all the way.

Transfers and a win at last

A terrible period for Fulham since Christmas has finally ended – they then went six league games with only a single point gained against Spurs on Boxing Day . The cup wins were of course good news in January, but they were also games against teams from lower divisions. But now a win in the Premiership, even against the struggling Pompey, is a welcome boost.

Etuhu returns from the African Nations Cup with a tooth problem that saw him withdraw from the first team after the group games, Konchesky and Gera were injured and AJ remains unavailable. However, Zamora is back earlier than was initially expected following his dislocated collarbone. But still, about half of the first team are currently out, so it was good to see some new players coming in during the transfer window.

Okaka has been discussed for some time now, coming over from Roma to train with the squad in January. He was probably in mind ever since he scored against Fulham in the Europa Cup. With Kamara going to Celtic on loan (with a view to a sale over summer), Okaka is now likely to be a starting forward until some of the regulars return. He had a bright start against Portsmouth, so maybe he could establish himself beyond that. I hope so, and I hope that if he does settle he’ll be available to buy when his loan expires at the end of the season.

Nicky Shorey also played well in the first game of his loan. He’s replaced Konchesky to fill the gap at left-back, which may mean that he’s destined to return back to Aston Villa in May.

What looked to be more of a long term investment was the signing of Christopher Buchtmann from Liverpool. He’s only 17, but has already been in an FA Youth Cup final and was in the team that won the last U17 European Cup for Germany. It’s certainly sent a lot of Liverpool fans into another bout of criticising their management.

Accrington Stanley 1 – 3 Fulham

A bit of a scare there, when the home side equalised a few minutes after the first Fulham goal. It’s hard to know whether Fulham would have broken Stanley down if Darren Kempson had not been sent off for his wayward tackling. I would like to think that they would, even with several injuries and playing on one of the wonkiest pitches in the land.

Either way, Fulham are in the draw for round 5, and hopefully a win will be a good morale boost ahead of a busy stretch – 5 games in 15 days between 26th Jan and 9th Feb.

Blackburn 2 – 0 Fulham

The poor away form continues, with a result that Fulham could have done without. The worry is that after the highs of December, the team is finding it hard to keep the momentum up in January. The loss of several players to injury (and a couple in Africa) makes this a tough period, but there should be depth to the squad: many of the games in Europe against top opposition were played with alternate players.

Both goals came from set-pieces. The first from a corner which led to Duff needing to parry a knock from Murphy that could have been an own goal. That parry led, unfortunately, to the feet Samba. The second from a free kick in which Nelsen was able to get well clear to head in, although there was more than a hint of offside.

Dempsey was off injured, after a pretty good game in which he hit the bar (from a bicycle kick!) and made quite a bit of play. A potential cruiciate ligament knack, and if that’s the case, he could be out for some time. Hopefully Clint hasn’t taken more than a light knock.

Stoke City 3 – 2 Fulham

I’m sure most Fulham supporters would wish this game had been cancelled. Not only was the result bad (although it could easily have ended up as a draw after the Whites came back from 3-0 down and had a penalty denied in the last minute), but Hangeland had a relapse of his knee injury and then Zamora dislocated his collarbone.

Hopefully, Bobby will be fit within a few weeks, but it’s a blow for a player who has hit top form of late and was scoring at the rate of nearly goal a game through December. There are replacements in the wings, who have been playing in Europe or as cover when AJ was injured, but Hodgson had been hoping to see Zamora and Johnson working together up front.

January will also see some tough fixtures, with away trips to Blackburn and Spurs, and whoever we get in the FA Cup, while facing Portsmouth at home this Saturday and hosting Aston Villa at the end of the month.