In the heart of Volkswagen country, Fulham motored serenely into the semi-finals of the Europa League with an efficient performance that was surprising only in the simplicity of the win it delivered. Any good motor racing driver will tell you he’s only as good as his engine. I’m in desperate danger of overextending this metaphor, but it’s the same with football teams.
Games are won and lost in midfield. Particularly in European and international football, ball retention is key. Fulham’s engine room has spluttered a little of late. Danny Murphy’s not hit the heights of last season in a campaign disrupted by niggling injuries and suspensions and Dickson Etuhu’s been overshadowed by his makeshift replacement, Chris Baird. I’ve been critical of the Nigerian in the past couple of weeks but he was absolutely outstanding in Germany last night.
Etuhu’s peerless performance becomes all the more impressive when you factor in the amount of times Murphy misplaced a pass. A few weeks ago, some commenters suggested I was being a bit harsh in berating Dickson’s distribution. They were probably right: the boy’s not Xavi Hernandez, is he? Etuhu knows his limitations but he can be a powerful presence at the heart of the Fulham midfield when he’s on song.
It was Craig Brown who told Roy Hodgson that Etuhu, whom he had briefly at Preston, was one of the best players on a training pitch that he’d ever seen. The trouble was harnessing that into consistent performances when it mattered. Etuhu was absolutely immense in both games against Juventus and was back at his best here. He snapped into tackles with real relish, often recovering the ball – one brilliant sliding challenge on Dzeko set Fulham speeding downfield – but his passing was equally excellent.
You felt his primary role last night was to shackle the dangerous Zvjezdan Misimovi?, something he did handily in the first leg at Craven Cottage, but Etuhu went further than that. He was an excellent shield for his back four, winning headers against both Dzeko and Grafite (which when you consider the size of the Wolfsburg forwards in no mean feat), and mopped up many a dangerous situation. Just as vital was his play when he had the ball at his feet.
There’s a tendency to think that Dickson sometimes slows Fulham’s pace down when he’s in possession. Not last night. Fulham’s gameplan was obviously to move the ball quickly through midfield, posing a threat to the home side with quick passing. Etuhu was on the right wavelength throughout. Confident as he was, he didn’t try anything fancy: often playing the simple ball to the open man.
This was the kind of dominant performance that reminded you once again of the value Hodgson saw in the £1.5m deal to bring him in last summer. If Etuhu’s this assertive away from home on a regular basis, Fulham will certainly pick up a few more points on their travels.