Monday, November 10, 2008

Paying the penalty

Fulham 2 - 1 Newcastle Utd

Just three months into the season, it must be a sight Shay Given is already heartily sick of: an opposition player placing the ball on the spot. Our back four's complacent if often well-founded confidence in Given's abilities to save their bacon really has gone too far now. Today's penalty - conceded by Fabricio Coloccini for an ill-advised rather than malicious challenge on Fulham's Andy Johnson, and converted by Danny Murphy - was the sixth we've conceded this season, our Irish custodian having repelled only the first, from the boot of Bolton's Kevin Nolan in the first home game of the campaign.

So, just like last season's fixture, it was a spot-kick which determined where the points ended up, only this time we were on the losing side. Our now customary sluggish start had already nearly been punished by Jimmy Bullard, whose toe-prod forced Given into a sharp save at his near post, and by a couple of headed efforts from Zoltan Gera when we generously handed our hosts the lead in circumstances that made us wince and everyone else watching piss themselves with laughter.

Claudio Cacapa - in for the injured Steven Taylor, just as he was last season, curiously enough - had the luxury of letting Bullard's curling cross go through into Given's arms, but instead panicked and headed the ball off his partner Coloccini's back for it to fall perfectly for Andy Johnson eight yards out. Given's worked miracles many times before, but not this time, and the half-volley flew through his legs into the back of the net.

Despite being hamstrung by ASBO's anonymity (not knowing he was on the pitch - who'd have thought it possible?) and Jonas Gutierrez's malfunctioning passing radar, we drew ourselves together and mounted a response of sorts. First the in-form Obafemi Martins fired wide with zero backlift, and then Damien Duff went even closer, crashing a shot with his lesser-spotted right foot off the base of Mark Schwarzer's near post.

We began the second period the way we left off in the first - threateningly. Great balls in from the left from Gutierrez and Jose Enrique were begging for someone to have gambled on getting into the six yard box. Shola Ameobi it was who got the equaliser, firing past Schwarzer when the ball dropped fortuitously at his feet at close range. As hints of offside go, this one was as unsubtle as they come (worth bearing in mind given what subsequently transpired), but we gratefully accepted the gift and set about finishing the job off. ASBO had a skimming shot brilliantly pushed round the post and Nicky Butt snatched at a similar opportunity, as Fulham began to look ragged and all but beaten.

Then, against the run of play, came the penalty incident. Coloccini could have few complaints about the decision itself, but JFK was fuming over Johnson's shove on Cacapa that went unspotted in the build-up, and labelled Martin Atkinson a "Mickey Mouse referee". Which raises an interesting point: would dressing up as Disney characters garner refs more respect? Somehow I doubt it. Either way, though, expect JFK to be watching the next few games back in the stands.

Fulham retaking the lead put a great big stick through the spokes of our resurgence and after that we never again showed the same conviction that we might be able to go on and win. On 70 minutes Michael Owen came on for Gutierrez (even though Duff was the prime candidate to be replaced, having run into blind alleys all afternoon) and no doubt soon wished he hadn't, managing what was by his own high standards an incredible miss from very close range in front of the watching Fabio Capello. His only excuse can be that he thought Ameobi would apply the finish instead, and he must have been praying for an offside flag to spare his blushes, but it never came.

Martins remained lively, but we looked vulnerable on the break, often stretched by Bobby Zamora and very nearly punished by a curling Simon Davies shot, while Atkinson angered our bench further by giving a foul against Habib Beye for a perfectly good tackle and then booking him for his protests. Anger was just about all we could work up, though, and that was that.

Results elsewhere, including unexpected wins for Bolton and Spurs at Hull and Man City respectively, meant we once again slid back down into the relegation zone. There's no consolation in being above the Mackems when they're in 19th, believe me, but it's so tight that a crucial win against Wigan next weekend would see us rocket up the table again. A psychological boost more than anything, to be sure, but that's what we need after witnessing our recent revival hit the rocks.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian


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