Stanislav Manolev wasn’t expecting to make his Fulham debut this afternoon. While his team-mates were preparing for a tough test at Norwich, the Bulgarian defender was back in London readying himself for his first full week of training at Motspur Park after finally being granted a week permit to complete his loan move from PSV Eindhoven.
But any thoughts of a quiet Saturday were quickly banished after a virus struck down the two men ahead of him in Martin Jol’s pecking order at right back. Ever-present Sascha Riether withdrew from the starting line-up injured and utility man Chris Baird was also unable to play, leaving Fulham frantically summoning Manolev away from London. It took a mid-morning taxi ride to even give the reserve right back a chance of playing his first Premier League game. It is a testament to Manolev’s professionalism that you would never have figured his first Fulham appearance was such a last-minute affair from the composed way in which he slotted serenely into the back four.
Riether, who had prior today been an ever-present in his brief Fulham career, has arguably been the club’s player of the season, combining some fine defensive decision making with a few bursts down the right flank to provide an overlap in attack. Whilst Manolev did look a little rusty in the final third – twice crossing out of play from good positions – he struck up a good understanding with Byran Ruiz, who started on the right of a four man midfield, and barely put a foot wrong defensively. Like so many modern full-backs, Manolev looked comfortable and composed in possession and kept Elliott Bennett’s breaks beyond him to a minimum. Indeed, the only time Norwich profited from any space behind the 27 year-old was in the first five minutes when Luciano Becchio stabbed a shot straight at Mark Schwarzer.
For someone who was probably looking forward to a quiet weekend before a swift morning jaunt up the motorway, this was an impressive introduction to the Premier League for Manolev, who displayed the kind of aptitude that suggests it will be an interesting tussle between him and Riether for the right back berth over the course of the season. For someone who stepped out of a taxi and into the starting line-up with new team-mates with whom he’s barely trained, this was a very encouraging start to the Bulgarian international’s Fulham career. Just as it importantly, Manolev’s magnificent effort helped the Whites record their first clean sheet since the goalless draw at Chelsea in mid-November.