Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Hope Despair springs eternal

Fulham 2 - 1 Newcastle Utd

That corner we turned by beating Wigan last Monday? Turns out to have led us directly into a brick wall. As is so often the case, we took one look at the opposition (no wins in seven, no goals in over five hours), remembered the season of goodwill is nearly upon us and handed them three points, being embarrassed by an old boy in the process.

Before kick-off, the signs were promising. Not only had Davide Santon, Demba Ba and Mr T all shaken off the knocks that forced their withdrawal against the Latics, but HBA was also back in action after four games out, taking his place in the fans' favoured 4-3-3 formation. At last, the creative spark we'd been lacking - surely?

It didn't take long for that pre-match optimism to evaporate - about a minute, to be exact, when Alex Kacaniklic was allowed to get into the area but skewed his shot wide under belated pressure. Danny Simpson found himself forwards and in space to deliver a few early crosses, but the formation meant he and fellow full-back Santon were given scant protection in repelling raids down the flanks.

When Fulham took the lead on 19 minutes, it was inevitable that Damien Duff - booed from the outset by the away contingent - would be involved. The Irishman got the better of Sideshow Bob and pulled the ball back for Steve Sidwell to hit a shot that deflected unkindly off Mike Williamson, looped over Tim Krul and bounced into the net off the underside of the crossbar.

Falling behind sparked no great response - on the contrary, we actually started to look more ragged, with Vurnon Anita and Mr T losing what little grip they'd had on the midfield as players were allowed to run freely at the heart of our defence. Only a fine Krul save denied Dimitar Berbatov when he'd been gifted the ball by Mr T, while the Dutchman was assisted by a defender in keeping out another effort from the languidly elegant Bulgarian.

Our best chance of the first half was an extraordinary Sideshow Bob header from nearly 18 yards that was destined for the top corner until an unfortunately positioned defender headed it up and away off the line. In the final five minutes we finally started to exert some pressure, but the Cottagers' leaky defence - shored up by the return of Brede Hangeland - held firm.

The Silver Fox's stern words at the break had an impact, with a much improved start to the second period, and within ten minutes of the restart we were level. HBA it was who conjured something from nothing, whipping in a shot that span off John Arne Riise's foot and dipped over the bamboozled Mark Schwarzer and in off the bar - a near carbon copy of the goal that had put us behind.

That was our cue to push on for a second we were more than capable of getting, but critically it was Fulham who beat us to the punch. A cheaply conceded free kick was swung in by Duff and, with Sideshow Bob again the wrong side and at fault, Hugo Rodallega had the simple task of nodding past Krul from less than six yards. Duff's celebration - eyeballing the away end triumphantly - will have ensured the booing intensifies when Fulham visit St James' later in the season.

We sought a second route back into the game but never really extended Schwarzer enough, too many shots too close to the Australian, easy to smother before the onrushing forwards could poach the loose ball. The Silver Fox withdrew the flagging HBA as well as central midfield pair Mr T and Anita, with Big Lad, Master T and Sylvain Marveaux coming on as replacements, but to no avail. The closest we came to an equaliser was Sideshow Bob's superb curling shot from just inside the area that cannoned back off the post. Cisse had earlier hit the other upright, but (surprise, surprise) was flagged offside.

In chasing the game, the gaps in our midfield opened up even wider and we were lucky not to get punished by Fulham's breaks, in some of which our defenders were actually outnumbered. Substitute Mladen Petric whizzed a shot off the angle, but Rodallega's goal was enough as the HBA-free visitors ran out of ideas and inspiration.

The Silver Fox might have ventured to suggest afterwards that we were worth a point - wishful thinking, perhaps, as there's no doubt we certainly didn't want to stumble into the next few fixtures off the back of yet another defeat.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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