Eleven weeks is a long time in football. That’s how long has passed since Jamie Carragher declared he was “more certain of Fulham going down than Liverpool winning the league”…
It was also around this time that bookmaker, Paddy Power decided to pay out on bets made for The Cottagers to be relegated back to The Championship. There is every chance that come June, Fulham are preparing for a season in the second tier. But one thing that we can now say, is that this no longer looks a sure thing. The side that surrendered so feebly to Aston Villa feels a million miles away from the side that had the Premier League champions on the ropes for large parts of their most recent fixture.
Scott Parker showed signs of his tactical acumen last season. The home win over Leeds and the Play-Off Final victory against Brentford were evidence of this. We can now add Leicester away and Liverpool at home to that list. The positioning of Bobby Decordova-Reid continues to be a revelation, as he notched his fourth league goal of the season, while continuing to provide the defensive cover down The White’s right flank. It was clear early on that Decordova-Reid was playing slightly higher than he had in the previous two games, and that licence to attack was rewarded with a brilliant finish. But even before that, he was causing problems for the Liverpool back line, as he played a clever pass to Ivan Cavaleiro that led to the Portuguese winger-cum-striker being unceremoniously taken out by Fabinho. No penalty was awarded and on first-glance it didn’t raise many eyebrows. But with the benefit of VAR, it seemed fairly clear that a foul had taken place.
That the Fulham players’ heads did not drop is a testament to the mentality Parker seems to have instilled in his charges. And when the goal came, it was richly deserved. The efforts of every player deserves praise. Mario Lemina was tigerish in his tackling and Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa was dominant in and out of possession. Both marshalled the midfield in a fashion reminiscent of Papa Bouba Diop, who was fondly remembered before kick-off with a minute of applause. A deserved tribute on the anniversary of the Senegalese giant’s net busting strike against Manchester United in 2004.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek faded in the second half, but only after an energetic display played a big part in Fulham’s first half dominance. He occupied the Liverpool centre-backs, creating space for the willing runners ahead of him. Ademola Lookman was unrelenting in his dribbling and Cavaleiro as industrious as ever, running tirelessly into the channels and offering a constant threat in behind. The latter seems to be emerging from his recent difficult spell, and went close to scoring on at two occasions in the first 45 minutes. His work-rate can not be questioned, but the quality in his play is returning.
With ten minutes to play the first half, The Whites sat in and defended astutely as Liverpool grew into the game, without genuinely threatening Alphonse Areola’s goal. The second half was always going to be difficult to see through, but the running of Cavaleiro and Lookman, coupled with the organisation of the Joachim Andersen and his back line kept Liverpool honest, and ensured they were always wary of the threat of the counter-attack. Antonee Robinson’s athleticism was matched by his tackling as he shackled Mo Salah, while Decordova-Reid will have to return Sadio Mane to his employers after keeping him in his pocket for the duration of the match. On the rare occasion the visitors did break through, Areola, as is becoming the norm, was there to repel the efforts on goal.
Liverpool’s penalty award was soft, but not a complete travesty of a decision. Parker has mentioned the need to be “street-wise” this season. Unfortunately Aboubakar Kamara didn’t demonstrate that smarts as part of the wall as Gini Wijnaldum’s effort struck his raised arm via Adarabioyo. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a fan in White that wouldn’t have accepted a point, if offered, at the start of the day. The manager praised not only the work ethic, but the quality of his players at full-time, and that quality will be needed as we now head into fixtures that will, arguably, have more of an influence over the immediate future of the club than this one.
Parker has shown he is capable of effective planning as an underdog, now it’s time to show what he can do when in the driver’s seat. Brighton at home is a game in which to target three points, and it will be interesting to see how the, still, rookie head coach approaches it. The system we have witnessed in recent weeks has been extremely effective, but it is also very fluid. The goal scorer in this game’s, change in position throughout the match is a testament to that. Parker may not have to change strategy, as much as tweak it in the coming week, as the level of opposition decreases. Whether or not that means a return for the club’s captain and/or vice-captain remains to be seen.
Aleksandar Mitrovic was not in the squad, the result of a knock picked up in training is the party line. Tom Cairney remained on the bench for the duration, and may have been a better choice to replace Loftus-Cheek in place of Kamara, but the logic in introducing the French forward at the time was sound with Parker prioritising the threat of a breakaway over ball-retention. With our Chelsea loanee clearly tiring as the game wore on, it may be that Cairney is given a starting berth with a quick turnaround before Brighton arrive at the Cottage. His form has been good this term, so a change there would not necessarily weaken the team.
If there’s one criticism, it’s that Fulham are still not enough of a threat in attacking set-plays. Tosin Adarabioyo missed a free header to double the home sides lead, but the other five corners yielded little initial success, though the goal did come from a recycled one. There are now a number of imposing figures in the Fulham lineup; Anguissa, Andersen, Loftus-Cheek and the aforementioned Adarabioyo all stand in excess of six-feet, and that’s without mentioning our absent Serbian powerhouse, Mitrovic. There is certainly enough to be more of a threat in these scenarios, and yet no Fulham goal has been the result of set-piece yet this season. But even this criticism is somewhat forced.
When we look back, this fixture will stand out for a number of reasons. It was a game where Fulham showed, beyond any doubt, that they are a team of Premier League quality and endeavour in one of the sternest tests a side can face in this division. But it was also a game in which we were reminded of the importance of, the often cliched, twelfth man. The 2000 fans in attendance made themselves heard throughout, and I have no doubt it buoyed the players, as much as the performance enthused those watching from the Hammersmith and Putney Ends.
Fans are back at The Cottage, and Fulham are back to creating memorable scenes at the most picturesque of English Football stadia.