A lethargic performance by Fulham was fortunate not to be punished as Croatian hosts RNK Split dominated the ninety minutes. The warnings were there on five minutes as the Fulham back four was caught totally square, Ante Erceg sent clear through on Schwarzer’s goal only for the striker to scuff his shot horribly wide. RNK continued to pepper the Aussie’s goal and created another good chance mid way through the half after a near post delivery from a free kick was flicked on with the outside of a foot but the attempt was miscued and Schwarzer plucked the ball out of the air.
Still, despite a couple of forays into the RNK Half Fulham were clearly struggling, their only attempt of note in the first half hour a tame shot from Zamora from distance. In contrast to the lethargic use of possession and disorganised marking and closing down by the away team, RNK Split were quick with their passing, keeping possession well and using their extra man and wing backs to good effect by making sure no Fulham player had their way with the ball. This wasn’t helped by Zamora who’s first touch was uncharacteristically poor all night, so any time the ball did make its way to him it didn’t stick as it usually would. Murphy similarly was a virtual passenger throughout the game, barely getting hold of the ball and demanding possession as he did so well last season and Etuhu was incredibly ineffective both with and without the ball. With the midfield battle being well and truely won by the Croats Jol would have been relieved to go in at half time unscathed.
The start of the second half was more positive for Fulham, perhaps after being told a few words by the manager, who almost created a chance for Briggs after Andy Johnson showed an impressive burst of pace to cut the ball back from the byline before the RNK right back made a good interception. This second wind wasn’t to last however and the pattern of play soon fell back into how it played in the first half. The subs started rolling out onto the pitch and the home side were clearly feeling as if they could get a shock result, putting four forwards out on the pitch. The Fulham changes were slightly more conservative, Sidwell replacing Etuhu only to pick up where the Nigerian left off, and Zamora making way after eighty mintues for debutant Kasami whos first action was a nice display of agility to win a free kick which went to waste, as many others did this evening.
There was still time left for an RNK player to make himself a hero in their self proclaimed biggest game of their history when Duje Cop turned Baird majestically on the edge of the box before slipping as he struck the shot straight at Schwarzer. It was a let off that summed up Fulham’s night, who’ll return to England with the aggregate reading 0-0 before the home game for which they will surely be heavy favourites
Fulham certainly weren’t at their best tonight, looking all game as if they were in second gear (other than Duff who consistently impresses), but one suspects that this game was still being treated as a ‘pre-season friendly’ despite the enthusiasm and quality of play by the opposition. Conclusions can’t really be drawn from this game, just as if Fulham turn RNK over next Thursday it doesn’t make them world beaters. The most important thing is progress to the group stages and the builing of match fitness which were objectives that were just about achieved tonight, even if the performance was disappointing. There is the right to expect an improved display next week however, otherwise the favourites just might be caught cold…
RNK SPLIT (3-4-3): Vukovic; Vidic, Krizanac, Milovic; Vitaic, Marcic, Simic (Rebic 56), Budisa; Baraban (Rasic 84), Erceg, Golubovic (Cop 68). Subs (not used): Zagorac, Radnic, Galovic, Barisic.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Baird, J.A. Riise, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu (Sidwell 78), Murphy, Duff, Briggs; Zamora (Kasami 82), Johnson. Subs (not used): Somogyi, Kelly, Senderos, Gecov, B.H. Riise.
BOOKED: Etuhu, Sidwell.
REFEREE: Sergei Karasaev (Russia).