We came into tonight’s game against Leicester on the back of 2 losses (against West Ham and last weekend’s against Everton), and it’s fair to say I was nervous. The thought of an in-form Jamie Vardy facing up against our somewhat shaky backline sent shivers down my spine. Although I did not take the bold step of ‘triple captaining’ him for my fantasy team, I would be lying if I were to say I hadn’t thought about it.
Upon seeing the team sheet, I felt slightly baffled. Two changes were made- Anguissa and Loftus Cheek in, Cairney and Lemina consigned to the subs bench. Leaving your captain and biggest goal threat is a bold statement from an arguably under-fire manager. My feeling was one of bewilderment, but I was willing to see what Parker had up his sleeve. I was also curious to see how Ruben Loftus-Cheek would get on- after a much-improved showing against Everton from the 24-year-old.
Before the game there was a minute of applause for both the legendary Diego Maradona and ‘The Wardrobe’ Papa Bouba Diop- who was one of my favourite players growing up, as well as a firm fan favourite at the Cottage – he will be sorely missed.
The game got off to a slow start, but I thought we held our own well. I was particularly intrigued by our defensive set-up. It appeared as if Scott had instructed Bobby Reid to play as a right wing-back- and this was something I thought he excelled in doing. He looked comfortable playing in a new position against a high calibre of opposition and hardly put a foot wrong all night.
It was the Foxes who went closest first, when on 19 minutes, Youri Tielemans hit the post with a seemingly speculative volley from 20 yards before Wesley Fofana’s follow-up effort crashed against the bar. A subtle reminder to us that it takes seconds for the top teams to turn games on their head. We had played well, but we would have to go up a gear if we were going to get something from this one. Vardy went close soon after with a devilish flick, but Areola proved his worth by diving low to save it.
A few minutes later, Andre Frank Zambo Anguissa picked up the ball. He ran excellently for 50 or so yards, before shrugging off a helpless Leicester player and sliding in a perfectly weighted through ball to Ademola Lookman who found himself 1 on 1 with Schmeichel and a well-placed shot away from redemption, following THAT penalty miss at West Ham. Lookman, who was assured under pressure- tucked it neatly into the bottom right corner and wheeled away in celebration, whilst I tried (and failed) to contain my excitement in my university bedroom.
Personally, I couldn’t be happier for him- he endured tough criticism following the West Ham game but has come back stronger and I hope this is only the start of the relationship between Lookman and Fulham.
Lookman ran over to the bench to celebrate and lifted a Senegal shirt in memory of Diop, a touching tribute to a man who, in my eyes, embodied what it means to play for Fulham.
Only a few minutes later, we found ourselves behind their backline again yet this time Bobby Reid, up from the right-hand side, was tripped by Christian Fuchs as he chased a ball from Ola Aina. There were claims for a penalty, and although not given originally, Simon Hooper, referee for the night gave it after a brief check on the VAR monitor.
I have to say, whilst everything was still up in the air- I was hoping that it wouldn’t be a penalty. We have been woeful from the spot this season and another miss here might knock the rhythm we had gotten into and dismantle what I thought was a complete showing. But the replays showed there was only really one decision, and so we were faced with our fifth spot-kick of the season. Ivan Cavaleiro, who missed our last one against Everton stepped up- and put this penalty where he wanted to put the last one- straight into the top corner. The penalty demons banished, and Fulham 2-0 up before half time away from home? Dreamland, and something few saw happening going into the game.
The half time whistle blew, and I sat on my bed feeling thoroughly pleased with what I’d seen but deep down, I knew the job was not yet complete. Leicester could easily come out for the second half a different beast. I was happy, yet cautious in my celebration.
What I saw in the second half only built on our excellent first half. We looked solid as a unit from back to front- and I could see the effort the whole team was putting in. When watching Fulham, no matter if we win or lose, I want to see the players commit to the cause- and that was something I certainly saw tonight. In Reed and Anguissa- we have the perfect combination of midfielders. Reed, a diminutive, hard-working warrior willing to run himself into the ground and Anguissa- cool, calm, and collected with bucketloads of strength, and an eye for a killer pass. Tonight, I thought the pair of them put in performances Papa himself would have been proud of. There is no doubt in my mind that this is a midfield base which our attackers should feel comfortable playing off, and our defence should feel protected behind.
Leicester scored on 86 minutes through Harvey Barnes, and my stomach plummeted. After all, it would be very Fulham if we somehow emerged from this game with nothing, and now we had 4 minutes plus added time to get through. We introduced Mitrovic and Bryan as fresh legs and took the ball to the corner, but Leicester had a couple of chances in added time, going closest through Iheanacho- but the ball was stolen from him by Joachim Andersen- who played magnificently and seemed a natural choice for the armband after Cairney and Mitrovic were named on the bench.
And so, it was, after the longest 9 minutes of my life, that the whistle blew for full time. Fulham had stunned the Foxes and I couldn’t have felt prouder to be a fan. In what was surely our best showing of the season, we silenced several doubters and made a real statement. If I were to be asked for a man of the match, I would have to go with Bobby. He took up a new position and made it his own, in difficult circumstances. There isn’t a member of the team who doesn’t have a claim to being our MOTM, but I was especially impressed with Bobby and his contribution.
It was a tactical masterclass from Parker, who is slowly becoming one of the most underrated coaches in our league. Right now, I feel he is the man for the job- and someone who’ll only develop as the campaign goes on. He got us here and deserves a fair crack at keeping us here.
Next up is Manchester City away, and another chance to show what we’re about this season. A result here may literally come about once in a blue moon, but tonight proved we can do it away, and we can do it against the big boys.