Football can be the cruellest of games. In no other sport can the margin between the achieving of what would be a cheering victory, or of suffering a deeply disappointing defeat be so cigarette-paper thin. Thus was it in this closely contested game, which Fulham could have won. If only …
To the uncommitted soccer aficionado this would have been a super game to watch, full of incident, played at considerable pace between two teams who aspire towards the passing & pressing game, and where the result was in doubt up to almost the expiry of normal time. Despite their early lead Everton were never able to establish dominance. Twenty minutes into the second half and with Fulham still one-nil down, Martin Jol initiated a brave tactical ploy. Danny Murphy was withdrawn and Bryan Ruiz brought on. Quiet extraordinarily the Fulham set-up went to a 4-2-4 (with Bryan on the left of Steve Sidwell in midfield), which morphed in and out of a 4-1-5 as Bryan took on a ‘roam and get forward’ role.
Although in no way reminiscent of Brazil of the early 1970s, who are usually associated with such a deployment, Fulham adapted well to this rare, attacking mode and even appeared to be gaining the upper hand. First, within a few minutes of the introduction of this new system, Bryan scored with a delicately calculated chip into the top right hand corner of the goal, executed from just outside the left-hand side of the penalty area. With the scores level Fulham appeared to be the more likely to prevail. Bryan had a second good effort from inside the penalty area saved. Then with a minute to go of normal time Bobby Zamora in possession close in front of goal, clear and with the keeper dummied, managed (goodness knows how,) to miss. So Fulham could and possibly should have won, though of course in the event our team didn’t, with Everton scoring twice in stoppage time.
Our former favourite Louis Saha came back to haunt Fulham on his old stomping ground, squeezing a smart finish in from a tight angle as Aaron Hughes and Mark Schwarzer tried in vain to close him down. Jack Rodwell rubbed further salt into Fulham’s wounds by smashing home a third from close range right at the death.
An unbiased appreciator of the game would also have enjoyed the opportunity to see both Everton and Fulham each respectively field a young talented footballer, both at the beginning of their Premier league careers. Everton had on from the start Royston Drenthe, a young Dutch player who has been with Real Madrid. It was he who scored Everton’s first goal in third minute of the game, (a powerful 20 yard strike,) as well as playing a part in both their late goals. A stocky powerfully built player with a characteristic crouching stride and impressive short burst acceleration, he was for me Everton’s most effective player. Possibly in the making what the Italians term a ‘fantista,’ (a player who by the application of a rare and special individual skill or ability can turn a game).
Fulham fielded Bryan for a good part of the second half. (I use the name he has stated he would prefer to be know by, as ‘Ruiz’ is associated with his father who abandoned him.) From this game we now know just a bit more about his talents. Although a left footed player, he is not predominately left sided in his play. This was marked by his fluid mobility off the ball, and by his quick and precise short passing which included a couple of neatly executed give-and-goes. He clearly has an eye for goal, readily getting forward into goal scoring positions, and most importantly his goal was evidence of very good technique. Although the extent and full potential of his talent is yet to be established, what we saw in this game is encouraging.
With the result of this game it is now clear that Fulham have made a poor start to the season. Unless there is an early improvement in fortune with the accumulation of significant additional points between now and Christmas, the club could well face the unhappy prospect of a prolonged struggle against relegation. It is however an allusion that safety can now be achieved by a conservative approach. Martin Jol should continue to give opportunities to the young and promising players in his squad for Premiership games. (Mathew Briggs is now an outstanding prospect. The unstinting work-rate and all out commitment of Pajtim Kasani is truly impressive. Players like these and Bryan need the experience of regularly playing with top opposition if they are to develop and fulfil their full potential for the club.) Martin Jol should be supported in his endeavours to introduce greater flexibility and a more attacking approach to play, as well as encouraged to bring-on and integrate new talented players.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Grygera (Hughes 90), Baird, Hangeland, Riise; Dembele, Sidwell, Murphy (Ruiz 64), Dempsey; Zamora, Johnson. Subs (not used): Etheridge, Kelly, Duff, Etuhu, Frei.
BOOKED: Johnson, Sidwell, Baird.
GOAL: Ruiz (67).
EVERTON (4-5-1): Howard, Hibbert, Jagielka, Distin, Baines, Osman (Cahill 74), Rodwell, Neville (Coleman 74), Drenthe, Fellaini, Vellios (Saha 50). Subs (not used): Mucha, Heitinga, Bilyaletdinov, Stracqualursi.
GOALS: Drenthe (3), Rodwell (90), Saha (90).
REFEREE: Lee Probert (Wiltshire).