After falling just short in a penalty shoot-out at Stamford Bridge, disappointment was the prevailing emotion. But there was plenty to be positive about during the course of a pulsating derby last night, not least the performance of some of Fulham’s fringe players. The most eye-catching display came from Swiss midfielder Kerim Frei, still only 17, who might just have forced his way into Martin Jol’s first-team plans with his direct running, pace and creativity.
The teenager had already showed his potential in our early Europa League qualifiers but there’s been a buzz about Frei since he signed for Fulham last January. A good friend of mine was raving about ‘Fulham’s Messi’ after his first couple of appearances for the under-18 side and Frei’s come to the fore since Martin Jol replaced Mark Hughes and opted to give some of our promising youngsters an opportunity. He looked lively during his debut in the Faroe Islands and offered plenty of skill and threatening running when he was ended his first start against Crusaders in Belfast. With a little more luck, one of his mazy runs in the home leg might have been rewarded with his first goal when he was introduced as a late substitute at the Cottage. There’s a big step between taking on part-timers and delivering against Chelsea in a local derby, but young Frei looked far from fearful as he ran at the home defence.
He wasn’t afraid to take on his man, giving both full-backs – the experienced Paolo Ferreira and the highly-rated Ryan Bertrand – a real examination, even if he did tire towards the end of normal time. With his low centre of gravity, standing at just 5ft 6in, and dribbling ability, Frei reminds me of a young Steed Malbranque with a little more pace. He was confident enough to step over the ball, try a few tricks and turns, and there’s no doubt Jol would have been impressed with his evening’s work.
The highlight of his night was that lovely interchange with Bryan Ruiz to win the penalty. Such direct running gave Chelsea’s defence a real problem all evening and provoked a clumsy challenge from Alex, an experienced defender. It was just a shame that he couldn’t cap his evening with the goal his whole-hearted performance merited, snatching at a decent opportunity on his left foot as Ross Turnbull came rushing off his line.
Such a precious talent needs to be handled with care. He’s obviously very confident in his ability, but just as pleasing was his awareness of those around him. He rarely gave the ball away and got his head up to find team-mates in space. The temptation would be include Frei regularly in the first team-squad now, but a mixture of reserve team football and the odd cameo off the bench might be better for the youngster’s development. Frei’s already given an indication of his ability with the development squad, scoring this terrific goal against Manchester United’s reserves the other week. If he can bulk up a little more in the coming year and avoid being knocked off the ball, he’ll be competing for a first-team spot sooner rather than later.