As I went through the turnstiles at White Hart Lane last night, one of the cheerful attendants asked me what I thought of Fulham’s chances. I smiled gamely and told him that, given our wretched away record, we’d do well to keep it tight. He laughed, telling me that Gareth Bale was starting, and that Tottenham had been terribly poor in their last few games. Of course, that didn’t matter.
Roy Hodgson doesn’t seem to be having any luck with injuries this term. Playing the same side for much of last season was one of the major factors in Fulham’s record high league finish. The defence largely consisted of the same players, who were certain of their roles. There’s been no such simplicity of selection this season. Last night, Hodgson was forced to play Aaron Hughes at right back and Chris Baird, so impressive in central midfield of late, on the left side of a back four that also included Manchester United-bound Chris Smalling. It would be unfair to say they were shambolic, but it was far from a reassuring display. Baird’s replacement in the holding role, Kagisho Dikgacoi, looked out of his depth, always wanting another touch in tight situations.
The tone was set in the very first minute. The ball buzzed around the penalty area before Tom Huddlestone sent a powerful shot goalwards and Mark Schwarzer got down well to save. A couple of early corners caused carnage in the box and both Huddlestone and Jermain Defoe stung Schwarzer’s palms as Spurs sought an early goal. Gradually, Fulham settled and began to play some football, but a clever counter-attack in the thirteenth minute provided their only real opening of the half.
Zoltan Gera, whose tireless running was one of the few positives, turned a Damien Duff cross into the path of the returning Bobby Zamora, who burst through a nervy Tottenham defence, only for Huerelho Gomes to smother his shot. The Brazilian goalkeeper then stayed down for the best part of three minutes, claiming to have injured his arms, shoulder and face.
That was about as good as it got for Fulham. Having seen off the early Tottenham pressure, their task was made all the more difficult by conceding a soft goal. What will have dismayed Hodgson was that his side spurned several chances to clear the danger. Schwarzer was far from his usual commanding self in coming and waving a first at a David Bentley cross, but Bjorn Helge Riise naively looked to shepherd the ball out of play with Luka Modric on his heels. As the Norwegian dithered, the little Croatian did brilliantly to flick the ball behind him. There were still three red shirts between him and Peter Crouch, but his cross eluded them all, including Smalling, and Crouch finished clincally from close range.
Spurs were buzzing and might have had a second just before the break. Modric collected a crossfield ball from Huddlestone and took on Hughes inside the box. The makeshift right back stood off him, desperate not to concede a penalty, affording Modric the room to curl an effort inches over the crossbar. In the circumstances, 1-0 at the break was pretty palatable. Zamora looked isolated, again unable to win a decision with Ledley King climbing all over him and holding on, whilst Riise looked a shadow of the impressive winger we saw at Accrington. His crossing was so dire that it was a surprise to see him re-emerge for the second half.
Fulham did begin with a bit more purpose, but after a promising move, spanning more than 20 uninterrupted passes, came to naught, Spurs grabbed their crucial second. Bentley, making a rare start in the league, got it from a free-kick, but he wouldn’t have been celebrating had his ambitious free-kick from the angle not taken a hefty deflection off Riise’s face. Schwarzer, heading the other way, had no chance as the ball looped into the top corner.
There were late appearances as substitutes for Diomansy Kamara, David Elm and Simon Davies. Kamara seemed to perk us up a little bit, hitting a couple of efforts wide, and Elm showed once again that he might prove a useful option at this level, with some clever movement. Duff at least tested Gomes from the edge of the box and Dikgacoi sent a rising drive over the bar, but Hodgson will be desperate for his side to collect some points from the two forthcoming home games to halt our pointless run since the start of the 2010.
TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR (4-4-2): Gomes; Corluka, Bale, Dawson, King; Palacios, Huddlestone, Bentley, Modric; Crouch, Defoe (Keane 82). Subs (not used): Alnwick, Hutton, Bassong, Jenas, O’Hara, Rose.
GOALS: Crouch (28), Bentley (61).
FULHAM (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Hughes, Baird, Smalling, Hangeland; Dikgacoi, Murphy, Riise (Davies 64), Duff; Gera (Kamara 72); Zamora (Elm 79). Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Kallio, Greening, Nevland.
BOOKED: Kamara (72).
REFEREE: Mike Dean (Wirral).