‘Cup Fever’ may be more the footballing equivalent of man flu as opposed to Ebola these days, but the world’s oldest knockout competition still retains a good chunk of its charm (for this writer anyway).
Whilst teams are often heavily altered and stadiums drastically more empty, the FA Cup is a perfect way to take a break from the emotional ups and downs of league matches and just to try and enjoy the game for what it is. And when you lose at home to Oldham in the last minute, then somehow you can still laugh about it rather than jump into the river.
This year’s first Emirates-sponsored hurdle saw the Whites given the opportunity to give Aston Villa another footballing lesson. Unfortunately this time around, there would be no Floyd Ayité to ping it in from the halfway line, no R. Sessegnon to thread a ball through the eye of the tiniest of needles and no Tom Cairney to reduce John Terry to tears…
And even though the match came off the back of a hectic Christmas schedule, it did give Scott Parker a chance to try out a couple of different options, give Mitro a rest and bring in Michael Hector for his long-awaited debut. The team sheet saw Hector come in for Ream alongside Mawson with Christie and Odoi taking the full back roles, with a midfield of Onomah, Johansen and McDonald (who took on captaining duties in a rare start), with Knockaert and Cavaleiro being partnered by the somewhat unlikely figure of Joe Bryan, although the formation was somewhat more fluid than the club’s static graphic could tell us.
Once the game kicked off at 15:01 following the Head’s Up Campaign’s mental health video (a great initiative!), the game settled down to an intensity that suggested both teams were more concerned with matters in their respective leagues as opposed to the frivolity of cup football. Villa’s Marvelous Nakamba was booked on 6 minutes for a not-so-marvellous challenge on Bryan, but almost broke through following some overly-familiar defensive weakness from the home side, however the ball was eventually cleared.
Fulham started to look a little more dangerous with AK looking keen but the young keeper, Nyland, was rarely called into action throughout the half. It’s fair to say that despite the away side now being in the division above, there was very little between the two teams in terms of quality. Whilst Villa had the best opportunity of the half with the last kick of it, as El-Ghazi had his short brilliantly saved by Rodak following more suspect defending, Fulham were producing the more convincing football – although thanks to the lack of Riverside Stand, it did mean that view from the Johnny Haynes involved looking into the sun a lot! However, the deadlock remained unbroken at the end of the first 45.
The second half was a different beast altogether. Within the first minute, AK surged down the right-hand side before cutting in on his left foot, unleashing a shot that saw Nyland diving to his right, with the ball flying just past the far post. He wouldn’t miss twice though and within 10 minutes of the restart, the Whites would take the lead. Again, the ball made its way to the Frenchman on the right flank and he surged down before cutting in once again, and whilst no one was surprised to see the winger take the opportunity on his own, there was somewhat more surprise at the fact his 25 yard thunderbolt found its way into the top corner, giving the keeper no chance.
Whilst the loanee is often maligned for his style of play and lack of defensive interest, this performance was incredibly refreshing. Sure, the usual frustrations reared their head every now and then, but he seemed far more up for this than he had done in recent times and even tracked back far more than in previous games. Hopefully this will continue as the season goes on.
A second was almost added straight away but Cyrus had his shot on the angle blocked after the ball found its way to him from the left. The momentum was certainly with Fulham but as is so often the case, the dominance didn’t translate into further goals and ten minutes after taking the lead, Parker’s men were pegged back. Hector, having been impressive for the most part on his first start, misjudged the ball and El-Ghazi snuck in to chip over Rodak.
Much like in the wake of Fulham’s first, Villa almost capitalised on dropped heads, but Rodak pulled off another save to keep the scores level.
With 20 minutes remaining, Captain KMac made way for the returning Harry Arter for his first appearance since mid-October and what followed would’ve likely even shocked himself. With the Whites passing it around as if it was a training match for seemingly an eternity, the ball eventually found its way to Arter 30 yards from goal. Clearly bored of all that short passing malarkey, he unleashed what would best be described as a left-footed thunderb*stard into the top corner. Clearly delighted and surprised in equal measures, he ran off to celebrate with the fitness team who’d worked tirelessly to get him back on the pitch.
In the 82nd minute, Jay Stansfield (is this the baby Lisa was going around the world looking for?! Sorry.) came on for his first team debut having been scoring freely in the youth teams. Although he only had a few minutes on the pitch, he looked energetic and good with the ball and had AK squared it to him in the last minute rather than go for the chip, he could’ve added a 1st XI goal to his season’s tally.
From that missed opportunity to seal the game, Villa charged down the other end and to his credit, AK raced back and eventually won the ball off the attacking player on the goal line. Soon after, the referee blew his whistle to confirm the Whites’ place in the 4th Round of the Cup. Wembley here we come!
It’s hard to say how much can be read into the performance itself; there were plenty of instances where it looked to be the same old Fulham we’ve seen this season, but also glimpses of attacking play that should be seeing the team challenging for promotion come May. Had Mitro been playing perhaps there’d have been a couple more on the scoresheet, or maybe the forwards played with a bit more freedom without him being the focal point of play… Of course the game was won by two strikes that even the RMT would be proud of, whilst few clearcut opportunities were created, but from a morale point of view you’d have to hope this can only help. The next game is a tricky away trip to Hull, so it will be interesting to see how Scotty lines up his troops now they’re back to the blood, sweat and tears of the Championship!