When Martin Jol took over earlier this summer, all the early talk was about him adding a striker to supply the goals that had holding the Premier League’s draw specialists back over the last couple of years. Bemusement followed when, a few games into his reign, Jol insisted he was happy with his forward options. Perhaps the answer was right under his nose all along. Andy Johnson has more than his fair share of knockers, perhaps influenced by the talk of a £10m transfer fee, but the pint-sized striker continues to prove them all wrong. He’s rekindled his potent partnership with Bobby Zamora during Jol’s brief reign and his predatory instincts were the difference between success and failure against a spirited RNK Split side this evening.
His goal, which arrived just as the Craven Cottage faithful were fretting that a fine first-half display wouldn’t deliver the lead it merited, was about as atypical of the man as one could possibly be. A near-post flick from a corner can’t have featured regularly in the Johnson repertoire throughout his career, but a clever run saw him shake off the attentions his marker and guide a clever header into the far corner. Until then, Fulham had carried plenty of threat but failed to seriously test Andrija Vukovi? in the Split goal.
Damien Duff, who seems to be relishing this European campaign, came closest during a bright opening. With barely a minute and half on the clock, Duff shot wide from a clever Danny Murphy free-kick. Seconds later, he found himself into another shooting position, but failed to get a clean connection with the goal in sight. Clint Dempsey, restored to the starting line-up having returned to training this week after his Gold Cup exertions with the United States, almost doubled Fulham’s lead nine minutes after Johnson’s opener. The opportunity owed much to Johnson’s persistence – as the former Everton forward hassled a defender into a mistake on the by-line – and cut the ball back for Dempsey, whose drive from the edge of the box curled just wide of the far post.
The first half finished with a concerted spell of Fulham pressure. Johnson saw a goalbound effort blocked by a defender and Murphy, released by a lovely searching pass from Zamora, was foiled by a sprawling save from Vukovic.
Split, obviously energised by a rousing half time team-talk, emerged with a much more adventurous mindset. They abandoned their diagonal long-ball approach and took the game to Fulham in the second half, but were still largely restricted to long-range efforts. A dipping free-kick from Ante Vitaic had Mark Schwarzer scrambling anxiously across his line, but it flew narrowly wide. The visitors saw a lot more of the ball, but just as they were looking to impose themselves on the contest, Johnson nudged it out of their reach.
He had worked the channels tirelessly throughout the evening and one lung-busting run proved too much for Split to handle. Johnson surged away from two defenders and inside the penalty area, the danger inducing a reckless lunge from the otherwise excellent Velimir Vidic, and sending Johnson crashing to the turf. The referee had a quick look at his assistant and awarded the penalty, which Murphy duly dispatched.
Split still carried a threat and almost grabbed a crucial away goal immediately afterwards. A dangerous free-kick was stabbed goalwards by Goran Milovic and the ball bounced to safety off the underside of the crossbar, while Schwarzer was forced to save splendidly twice: first a low, tumbling stop from substitute Romano Obilinovi? and then a terrific tip-over from Ante Erceg’s dipping drive.
Fulham finished proceedings on the front foot. Substitute Pajtim Kasami almost capped another promising cameo with a goal, but his pacey free-kick just didn’t dip enough to find the top corner. Johnson thought he had crowned his night with a second, sprinting clear of the Split defence and rounding the goalkeeper to roll the ball home, but a late offside flag abruptly ended the celebrations. Johnson might have received a yellow card for his trouble, but he had already made his mark.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Hughes, J.A. Riise, Senderos, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Duff (Kasami 89), Dempsey (Briggs 81); Zamora (Dembele 76), Johnson. Subs (not used): Somogyi, Kelly, Baird, Gecov.
BOOKED: Johnson, Murphy, Briggs.
GOALS: Johnson (18), Murphy (pen 57).
RNK SPLIT (5-2-3): Vukovic; Marcic, Budisa, Vidic, Krizanac, Milovic; Simic, Vitaic (Rasic 74); Cop (Jordan 83), Erceg, Baraban (Obilinovi? 61). Subs (not used): Zagorac, Radnic, Galovic, Barisic.
BOOKED: Baraban, Vidic, Marcic, Rasic.
REFEREE: Duarte Gomes (Portugal).