If you know someone who’s falling out of love with football, you could do worse than take them down to Fulham over the festive period.
Those words weren’t uttered by me, but by an Arsenal fan strolling through Cannonbury Square last night trying to make sense of it all after another stupendous Saturday. I don’t like intruding on private grief, but this particular Gunner – who looked old enough to have seen a few decades of Arsenal sides – made it difficult as he delivered an assessment of the action down the phone line that was almost as breathless as the game itself. His reason for advocating a trip to Craven Cottage was simple – ‘with Berbatov and Ruiz in the side they’re very easy on the eye’.
It’s a sentiment that quickly being shared outside the places where you’d normally hear animated chatter about Fulham Football Club – although the memo hasn’t got to Salford yet, judging by the way Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer and Martin Keown gave the Cottagers’ comeback the most cursory of considerations on Match of the Day last night. I call it a comeback because, for all the platitudes about playing pretty good football in the first few minutes, the 2012 trip to the Emirates seemed to be following the history books with the Whites two down in 23 minutes.
Dismal defending is something the Ashburton Grove regulars have been discussing for a while, so it must have been a relief to find Fulham such accommodating visitors. Fortunately, for a feisty away end, the defensive errors weren’t confined to one end of the field. It still needed some artistry and appetite to explore Arsenal’s alarming vulnerability and there’s been a marked change in Jol’s approach away from home this season. Whereas during his transitional year, Fulham were still predictable on their travels, it is almost as if the big Dutchman has let the lads off the leash this term and a new team’s come alive.
The new-found potency (only Manchester United have mustered more goals than Jol’s team) is all the more remarkable given that the most reliable sources of goals [Zamora, Pogrebnyak, Dembele and Dempsey] all elected to ply their trade elsewhere this year. It also owes much to the two men who can’t have played an awful lot of football together. Everyone appreciates Dimitar Berbatov’s ability. Laconic rather than lazy, Berbatov ambles around the pitch at the pace of a testy teenager who’s just got out of bed. It’s not because Dimi’s disinterested; he’d just rather utilise his energy where it proves most effective. The Bulgarian had two efforts on target yesterday – a header that was so easy he barely celebrated it and a Paradinha-esque penalty – and sauntered down the right to create Alex Kacaniklic’s equaliser.
As brilliant as Berbatov was, he could only showcase the quality that entranced supporters of Spurs and Manchester United, because of the silky skills of Bryan Ruiz. The only thing the Costa Rican did wrong yesterday was to play a tired ball behind Sascha Riether in injury time. He’s been a scapegoat for some who can’t appreciate – or choose to ignore – the ground he covers to glide into dangerous positions and when Phil Dowd staggeringly decided to award that spot-kick, it seemed as though Ruiz’s detractors would have a field day. Fortunately, Mark Schwarzer superbly saved Mikel Arteta’s penalty – and dispassionate discussion of Ruiz’s contribution can be considered.
If he hadn’t already removed any lingering doubt at Reading a fortnight ago, then this display should have any remaining Ruiz knockers ordering a hefty slice of humble pie. He floated in the corner for Fulham’s first goal and arguably outshone Santi Carzola in a terrific tussle between two classical number tens, who scurry intelligently into space in search of the ball. There’s an added tenacity to Ruiz’s game now, best epitomised not in the way that he robbed Arteta in his own box, but by the regularity with which he ventured back past the half way to fight for possession.
The partnership between the pair of the time is still a work in progress, but you can see why Jol’s so keen to play the two of them together. Both drift all over the place – Berbatov playing a lot deeper than a conventional centre forward and Ruiz roaming from a free role behind him. At a time when there’s so much negativity surrounding our national game, appreciating the beautiful football of Fulham’s two artisans is a real pleasure. You get the feeling that the entertainment’s only just started too.