Ah, the divine taste of victory on a Saturday night; it’s been so long I had forgotten what it tastes like. 3 months, a full 90 days, indeed 9 league games without a win but we are beneficiaries of the new manager bounce. Mitro’s back on fire, there are some very sure signs of life and we are back in business…
Starting the day rooted to the bottom of the table knowing that defeat would put 6 points between ourselves and Southampton, the game was as big as they come for us at this stage of the season. Call it a 6-pointer, call it must-win, call it what you like, the pressure was on. Claudio Ranieri had only been at the club for a week and a half and with the disruptive international break adding a further complication, the importance of an immediate reaction and positive result should not be underestimated.
We know that the new manager has seen us in the flesh plenty of times this season already. This along with the detailed dossier on each player that he presented at his interview was what set him apart from the other candidates in the first place. He, of course, earned the title ‘The Tinkerman’ whilst at Chelsea for chopping and changing his team and formation, often mid-game (he once asked Denis Wise to play in 4 different positions in one game which prompted Wise to demand a transfer). So we awaited his first team selection with bated breath at 2pm. But the only change he made from Slavisa’s final line up at Anfield was enforced as the injured Anguissa was replaced by Seri. Otherwise, it was 4-2-3-1; Rico behind a back 4 of Le Marchand, Mawson, Odoi and Christie with Chambers continuing in the defensive midfield role next to Seri with Cairney, Schürrle and Sessegnon playing further forward behind Mitrović. The only notable absentee was Luciano Vietto. Will that last? Time will tell.
I found the atmosphere at the Cottage an odd one to begin with. I was really up for the game and with this in mind, was ready to make a lot of noise. I expected the roof to be lifted off right from the first whistle but there was an undeniable air of nervousness, seemingly with the onus on the players to lift the crowd rather than the other way around. As a side note to the atmosphere, I thought it was great that Matt Targett played in this one for the visitors and took all their set pieces. Saints had a couple of corners at both sides of the Hammersmith End very early on in the game and he was given a great reception which he gladly acknowledged both times. Good to see you, Matty!
We almost found ourselves behind inside the first 5 minutes; a combination of poor finishing from Manolo Gabbiadini and an outstanding reaction save from Sergio Rico kept the game at 0-0. Our on-loan Spanish ‘keeper further cementing his position as first choice and no doubt impressing his new manager with his agility.
When Southampton did take the lead in the 18th minute through Stuart Armstrong, I was worried that the players’ heads would drop. We looked nervous for a while and I remember commenting that we needed some sort of divine intervention out of somewhere, be it a dodgy penalty, an own goal or anything just to get us back in the game. A guy in front of me pointed out that we first need to get into the Southampton penalty area for that to happen!
We needn’t have worried though as we crafted a superb equaliser in the 33rd minute. Some lovely one-touch football in the middle of the pitch moved the ball forwards, Cairney played a defence-splitting ball into the box which Le Marchand picked up, flicked into the middle and Mitro showed unbelievable neck muscles to plant a downward header from an angle into the bottom corner of Alex McCarthy’s goal. Game on!
10 minutes later we were ahead and it was another superb Fulham goal. Sess beat two players wide on the left and delivered the kind of ball across the goal which is impossible to defend. Schürrle arrived at the back post and tapped it home to give us the lead at the break.
The first 10 minutes of the second half is a crucial time. Whatever you do, don’t concede Fulham. 2-2, damn! Sadly, Sess was to blame for this one, his header back into the danger zone, seemingly unaware of where his player was ended up being pinged into the top corner by Armstrong for his second of the game. The momentum was now in Southampton’s favour.
I felt this is where we came into our own though. We adapted, we got men behind the ball and looked much better defensively with our backs against the wall. We were under pressure, there is no doubt about that, but players put their bodies on the line and this, in my opinion, is exactly what we have been missing so far this season. This change in attitude could be one of many saviours.
We then looked to play on the counter-attack and Tom Cairney was instrumental, a real leader’s performance. This was the first time this season where I have thought he stood out as a top quality Premier League player. He did the simple things well all game, but in the second half he drove forwards, he showed skill, composure, good decision making, and aside from Rico who kept us in the game several times, I felt he was the man of the match.
Then it happened. Having looked the least likely side to nose in front, Schürrle put the Saints left-back under pressure as he tried to shield the ball in the corner and the ball eventually fell to Christie who turned onto his weaker left foot, floated the ball into the box, Sess (of all people) flicked it on and Mitro hit a first time volley into the bottom corner giving McCarthy no chance whatsoever! This was our time, with 27 minutes left to crank the noise up.
Ranieri took off Seri and replaced him with Johansen after 68 minutes to add some more bite in the middle (Stef was obviously booked), Schürrle was replaced by Kamara after 74 minutes which gave us more of an outlet to turn defence into attack whilst under pressure and then Ayite came on for the shattered Mitro 4 minutes from time. Kamara moved into the middle as we dug in to see the game out.
There was time in injury time for Rico to make another magnificent close-range stop and as the clocks seemed to stop, the whistle was finally blown and we had got the points. It was great to see the players all come over to us at the end and particular Mitro was absolutely delighted to get the win, screaming, shouting and punching the air in front of the Hammersmith End. I felt a sense of unity with the players again which, to be honest, I haven’t felt much this season. Sess always comes over but its more important than ever that the players do not underestimate the importance of that bond. We all need to stick together and get ourselves out of this mess!
The pernickety amongst us would say that to only have 37% possession at home, especially after the total football we have been spoilt with in the past couple of years has been papered over by a positive result. But this match was always going to be a case of the result being of far more significance than the performance. For me, because we don’t expect to come away with much from the Chelsea game next week and with another week for Claudio to implement his methods on the team, I think we can look at that game and be more concerned about performance than the result.
To summarise, there were some notable improvements in the areas we have been extremely poor in so far this season such as defending as a team, attacking as a team so as not to isolate Mitro and our general work rate. I’m currently reading a book called ‘Hail, Claudio!: The Man, the Manager, the Miracle’ and ex-Chelsea defender Mario Melchiot is quoted as saying “the most important thing to him (Ranieri) is what you do when you don’t have the ball. Where do you go? What do you do?” I, therefore, think that we can expect some shape to return to this team and it will begin to be very well drilled over the coming weeks. The gaps will be fewer and we should expect a far stingier defence.
I’m a glass half full man but I’m as convinced that we will stay up this season as I was that Palace would stay up when they appointed Roy Hodgson last season. Who’s with me?!