Relieved. That’s the only word to describe how anybody associated with Fulham felt when the final whistle sounded at the Liberty Stadium this afternoon. We’d been outplayed and outpassed by the artisans of the Championship whose reward for their first-half dominance was a comical own goal just before the break and a cruel half-time deficit. The hosts were energetic, particularly in midfield, and stayed true to boss Roberto Martinez’s total football philosophy and got their reward. The big Trinidad & Tobago centre forward, Jason Scotland, was a real handful all afternoon and he produced a moment of real quality to pull Swansea level. Aaron Hughes got touch tight to the big striker but Scotland turned him beautifully and drove a powerful finish into the corner.
It could have been so much worse for Hodgson’s side. Swansea could have been 2-0 up in the first 25 minutes. The former Tottenham trainee Mark Gowever, a real handful down the left all afternoon, played a lovely one-two with Scotland and burst into space in the Fulham penalty area. He crept through two challenges and shot past Mark Schwarzer, only for the ball to bounce off the far post and out. Gower had a chance to convert the rebound but lost his footing at the crucial moment.
If Gower was unfortunate on that ocassion, he was a little more culpable with his second chance. He found himself with oceans of space in the penalty area when the lively Nathan Dyer crossed into the box but Schwarzer bailed out his dozy defence with a terrific reaction save. Gower could have put the ball past the big Australian but perhaps lacked the composure necessary, perhaps due to the fact that he hasn’t scored for the Swans.
Fulham looked horribly jaded and off the pace. We’re used to going to the big four in the Premier League and having to soak up pressure but we ceded both the ball and the terrritory to Swansea for much of the contest. Imagine what the Championship play-off cotenders could have done with their two first choice central midfielders (one of them being our fromer trainee Darren Pratley) available. In their place, Jordi Gomez was excellent – pulling the strings at the heart of their five-man midfield – and the wonderfully named Angel Rangel was always bombing forward from right back.
Hodgson rang the changes: aware both of the fact that several players had long journeys on international duty in midweek and with the prospect of a daunting trip to the champions on Wednesday. John Pantsil had been in action for Ghana in the week and so in came Fredrik Stoor. The Swede looked out of his depth (not for the first time since he joined us in the summer), defensively naive and was lucky not to give away a second-half penalty with a clumsy challenge. Olivier Dacourt started in place of the injured Dickson Etuhu and gave us a much-needed presence in central midfield. That’s not to say he’s just a destroyer, his cultured passing helped us out of trouble on several ocassions, and we missed him when – due to his lack of match sharpness – he had to come off after an hour.
Clint Dempsey replaced Dacourt for the last quarter, but the American’s participation in his country’s 2-0 victory over Mexico in a crucial World Cup qualifier on Wednesday meant he simply wasn’t in a position to start. Zoltan Gera got another opportunity to show us what he could do in midfield but disappointed again: indeed Julian Gray offered more in a late cameo than Gera had in the preceeding 85 minutes. Erik Nevland started alongside AJ up front but both were terribly isolated for much of the contest and Bobby Zamora made an impact as a late substitute. The big striker was wrongly flagged offside twice in the closing stages – and one of the them saw him bearing threateningly down on goal.
That we are in the draw at all for the quarter finals owes a lot to a very fortunate own goal towards the end of the first half. Paul Konchesky, who has been swinging in threatening corners ever since we switched our set-piece routines when Spurs visited the Cottage back in November, drove a corner from the right which the Swansea ‘keeper De Vries flapped horribly at and the ball bounced in off Gary Monk, who might have been panicked by the presence of big Brede Hangeland. It was a scarcely deserved lead which barely lasted beyond Swansea’s spirited opening salvo in the second half.
Only the foolish would think that the replay is a foregone conclusion. Swansea have already gone to one Premiership ground and won in the competition this year and they’ll come to the Cottage and play their football. We’ll have to up our game for the second tie – that’s not in doubt at all.
SWANSEA CITY (4-5-1): De Vries; Rangel, Tate, Williams, Monk; Britton, Gomez, Allen (Bauza 81), Dyer, Gower (Orlandi 71); Scotland. Subs (not used): Cornell, Tudur-Jones, Bessone, Serran, Butler.
GOAL: Scotland (52).
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Dacourt (Dempsey 60), Murphy, Gera, Davies; A. Johnson (Gray 85), Nevland (Zamora 75). Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Pantsil, Milsom, Kallio.
GOAL: Monk (o.g. 44)
REFEREE: Howard Webb (South Yorkshire).