Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The mark of champions

Newcastle Utd 2 - 1 Fulham

If, as they reckon, playing badly and winning is the sign of a good side, then on Sunday we were a very good side indeed. Forget about goal-crazy Man Utd and Man City - we were the ones turning in a performance and result which bore the mark of champions...

Joking aside, it was a worryingly laboured victory over a lame Fulham - not to mention one which owed as much to Tim Krul's acrobatics as to brace-bagging Leon Best's sharp instincts at the other end. Nevertheless, the destination of the three points was the key thing, I suppose - at some point this season we're bound to play significantly better and lose.

With ASBO flogged and Big Lad and Dan Gosling both missing, Alan Pardew opted for a strikeforce of Best and Peter Lovenkrands, while Gabriel Obertan slotting into the position on the right-hand side of midfield vacated by ASBO.

The first half was a complete non-event until the 43rd minute, our display characterised by a lack of imagination and movement. The normally reliable crowd offered little encouragement either, grumbling about each misplaced pass and only really mustering enthusiasm for barracking Damien Duff with chants of "There's only one greedy bastard". Fulham, for their part, had a shot that deflected off Steven Taylor's head and flew into the Gallowgate while generally looking neat and tidy (Moussa Dembele in particular catching the eye in the role of playmaker and orchestrator), though carrying little threat.

With half-time fast approaching, Mark Schwarzer made a good low save to clutch Spidermag's well-directed downward header from Mr T's cross, and suddenly and belated the game sparked into life. Best had a shot blocked, Yohan Cabaye's fierce curling shot following a partially cleared corner was tipped over at full stretch by Schwarzer and from the subsequent corner Ryan Taylor volleyed inches wide of the far post from the edge of the area.

Thankfully, our momentum wasn't halted by the interval, Best taking just three minutes of the second half to open the scoring. Slack marking from a throw-in allowed Cabaye to turn and smash a shot goalwards, and when the ball bounced just in front of Schwarzer, the former Smog 'keeper could only palm it onto the bar, Best prodding into the empty net from all of a yard out. In a laughable incident so typical of us, he then clashed heads with Lovenkrands during the celebration, the Dane requiring treatment before being withdrawn for Demba Ba shortly after the hour.

By that point, though, Krul had already begun excelling himself, diverting a Steve Sidwell header over via the top of the bar. The cross had come from Duff, who, perhaps inspired by the boos, looked to be the visiting player most determined to get his side back on terms. A run which left Ryan Taylor floundering culminated with a shot into Krul's side netting.

Soon after, though, Fulham found themselves two down. Following one of his few incisive incursions on the break, Obertan found Ba on the right edge of the penalty area. When the orange-booted sub's low cross fizzed across the goal, Best's exquisite touch bamboozled his marker and he finished low past Schwarzer. A real moment of quality from a player who's usually best described as a tryer.

That, it seemed, was our cue to rest rather too comfortably on our laurels, the players apparently content to leave Krul to secure the victory. He saved brilliantly from both Chris Baird and Danny Murphy, but, just when you thought Mohamed Al Fayed might be busy concocting one of his conspiracy theories, the Dutchman was finally beaten two minutes from the end of normal time when Clint Dempsey was afforded space to head in Murphy's free-kick.

By that point we were already shaking our heads in bemusement at the fact that a hand injury to Best's replacement Haris Vuckic after just seven minutes on the pitch had meant we were playing out the game with a front pairing of Ba and a magnificently maned Alan Smith. Ba, to his credit, did at least skim the bar with a left-footed shot from a tight angle in stoppage time, but he continues to look a shadow of the player we thought we were getting.

Seven points from our first three fixtures isn't to be sniffed at, but at the same time certainly shouldn't be allowed to obscure our shortcomings, which remain legion. Overall, the squad looks weaker than at the end of last season, and we can't afford to go backwards while all those around us have taken steps forwards. Get the chequebook out, Jabba...

A Fulham fan's perspective: Craven Cottage Newsround

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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