Three days after the exceptional performance against the Premier League champions, it was back to business against Brighton as the South Coast side headed to a once-again eerily quiet Cottage for a match that definitely fell into the ‘Must Win’ column for both teams, especially with the news that West Brom had appointed long ball/survival specialist, Sam Allardyce, earlier in the day.
Whilst only 2000 fans were in attendance on Sunday, the comparative silence would’ve been deafening for the players who undoubtedly drew strength from the return of the select few Whites’ faithful, but this time around it would be up to them to use the occasion and the massive three points on the line to push them onto a win that would set Scott’s men up nicely for the hectic Christmas period.
Given the result over the weekend, it was unsurprising to see minimal changes to the starting XI, with Reed coming in for Lemina being the only change. Mitro found himself back on the bench after recovering from his apparent knock that kept him out of the previous game, so at least there was the goal-scoring threat on the bench that the team so dearly lacks when he’s not available.
From kick off, Fulham took the game Brighton, apparently trying to grab a goal whilst the away side were still waking up. Unfortunately, that tactic didn’t pay dividends and it settled down almost as quickly as it started. After initially being on the back foot, the Seagulls began to assert themselves but both teams seemed to cancel each other out. Since I last wrote one of these reviews, the team has essentially transformed into a well-drilled, highly organised group of players that no longer look completely out of their depth in this league, however the first half never really got going for the Whites with Cavaleiro’s curling shot in the 42nd minute being the only real test for the young Brighton keeper, Sanchez, who had come in for the more established Matt Ryan.
The second half began in almost the opposite fashion to the first, with Parker’s men looking horribly unorganised from the whistle and it was the only the wonderful invention that is VAR that stopped Brighton taking the lead. Almost immediately, VAR was called into action again as Lookman went down under a strong challenge from Webster but alas, the man in the Stockley Park cupboard wasn’t going to help us out twice in a minute.
After surviving more scares than a night in a haunted house, Parker made his first changes on the hour, with Reed and Lemina swapping places and BDR being replaced by AK – a change that most Fulham fans would’ve been scratching their heads over. I’ve not been shy over my criticism of AK, but I’d have been delighted if he’d come on and done more than run very quickly (Christmas miracles an’ all that). [Narrator: “He didn’t.”]
Loftus-Cheek should really have scored when put clean through following a slip by Webster, and you have to think that if Mitro had been in that position the ball would’ve flown past the young keeper rather than hitting him on the legs when the whole goal was at his mercy. Even Lookman or Cav would’ve probably been a better option as RLC’s lack of pace meant that the covering defender had caught up with him enough to pressure him into a pretty poor attempt at goal. I really hope that we start seeing more from him soon as there’s clearly an excellent player there, but we certainly haven’t seen him at his best yet and we could really do with that if he is to be a regular starter as the season goes on.
Mitro’s introduction to the game may have only come with 15 minutes remaining, but he almost had an immediate impact – first with his head and then getting involved with a great passage of play with Lookman, who drew a good save from Sanchez.
With the minutes ticking away and our record of 196 games without a 0-0 league draw at the Cottage quickly coming to an end, we’d have hoped for one last push towards the empty Hammy End, but there was to be no last hurrah and for the first time since Aston Villa on 13 August 2011, both teams drew a blank. It’s a mighty record that had to end at some point, but we could really have done with it not being when we really could have done with the 3 points.
Did the lack of fans in the ground have an impact? Had there been 2000 Whites supporters in the ground, would they have pushed the team on to grab that winning goal? Who knows. But it certainly seemed like the players could’ve done with that extra bit of energy as the game wore on. We only have 2 home games in the next month, and obviously there won’t be any fans at the Southampton game on Boxing Day, but fingers crossed we’ll be allowed our select allocation for the Chelsea game on January 15 as we’ll no doubt need that added drive once again!
In all fairness to Brighton, we need to be winning games like this, especially now that they’re being dragged into the relegation dogfight (along with Arsenal but sadly I don’t think they’ll hang around!) but in reality, we were lucky to come away with a point after the start of that 2nd half when they could’ve scored a couple before we’d even realised it had started.
A lot of fans will probably say that we should’ve set up to be more attacking rather the counterattacking style that worked well against Leicester and Liverpool, but I think it was case of “if it ain’t broke!” Despite the lowly league position, Brighton are a very well organised side and if we had attempted to change it up and go more attacking, we’d likely have left ourselves exposed and given them more opportunities to score. As it is (those 20 second half minutes aside) we were again very well organised and the back 3 marshalled by the excellent Captain Andersen put in another solid performance. Alphonse Areola again proved why he is our No.1 (even if Kmac might disagree…) and it’s clear what a quality keeper he is. If he’s only with us for a year, I hope Marek learns a lot from him and is able to step up and replicate what we’re seeing from the Frenchman.
This game will not live long in the memory, but we should take the positives from it and move onto the game this weekend against a Newcastle side that were just on the end of a battering at Elland Road. Will it be a chance for Mitro to get back into the starting lineup and his old team to the sword? If he’s fit, I think the answer has to be yes. But either way, with our newfound defensive organisation and Newcastle’s apparent lack of it, we need to be far more clinical when presented with opportunities in front of goal. If we are, then the players have a good chance of heading back south with 3 points in the bag. And what better way to start the (socially responsible) Christmas celebrations!