Nobody’s quite sure how long Giorgos Karagounis will last at Fulham. His arrival was seen by some as a desperate decision from Martin Jol, signing a 35 year-old stopgap after the Dutchman found it far from straightforward to plug the gaps left by the departures of Danny Murphy, Dickson Etuhu and Mousa Dembele during the summer. The Greek veteran has had to wait patiently for his chance, but his doughty presence at the heart of Fulham’s midfield has suddenly provided some of the steel that has been sorely lacking during the recent woeful winter winless streak.
He might not possess the fleet-footedness of a Dembele and can’t quite match Murphy’s cultured passing, but Karagounis’ intelligent football brain is an asset to any side. Coupled with his immense hunger for success and a dogged determination, it has made him nothing short of an idol in Greek football. Revered by Panathinaikos fans for his whole-hearted displays over ten years – split into two spells – with the Shamrock, opposition goalkeepers remember the pint-sized predator. Fabien Barthez described the free-kick that Karagounis lashed past him from 20 yards at Old Trafford in 2000 as one of the fiercest he’d ever faced, whilst Arsenal fans still wince at the memory of his diving header that sealed a famous win in the Apostolos Nikolaidis the following season. That’s before we consider the strike that shocked the hosts of Euro 2004, but proved a potent of things to come, as the unheralded Greeks went on to win the tournament, surprising Portugal again in the final.
Karagounis has appeared in a variety of positions already in his short spell at Fulham. Together with Kieran Richardson, he helped alter the momentum of a game that seemed to be slipping away at Southampton, as a substitute in central midfield. He operated on the left of a five-man midfield at Stoke, but it was on his next start at Stamford Bridge, in a more advanced position, that Karagounis really shone. His tireless work rate denied Oriel Romeu and Ramires any time on the ball and John Arne Riise really should have profited from a sublime, searching pass from that sent the full-back bearing down on Petr Cech.
In the last week, offered a chance to add a little more bite and guile in a malfunctioning Fulham midfield, Karagounis has switched from stopgap to an integral part of the side. His performance at the Hawthorns yesterday was typical. He successfully won a physical battle with Yousef Mulumbu for control of the midfield and, crucially, dropped into the deeper positions too often vacated by Baird and Sidwell in recent weeks, to take the ball off the back four. He strode forward with purpose and had the most successful distribution of anyone on the field, completing 92% of his passes. His dynamism and energy allowed Fulham to play more first-half football than they have of late and created the space for the team’s two artisans, Bryan Ruiz and Dimitar Berbatov, to hurt West Brom.
Karagounis’ introduction to the pace and power of the Premier League has revived an international career that appeared to be after he fell out of favour with Panathinaikos coach Jesualdo Ferreira. Now his country’s most-capped player, Karagounis hopes to end a glittering career in the service of his troubled nation in Brazil at next year’s World Cup. His endeavour has already made him a popular member of the Fulham dressing room, even if he admits he still struggles to understand the hurried English of some of his team-mates. Despite the energy-sapping 75 minutes of action, Karagounis sprinted off the substitutes’ bench at the Hawthorns with all the energy of a teenager to celebrate yesterday’s vital win, and he’s already bellowed at plenty of referees in Greek to avoid a caution.
Should Martin Jol strengthen his midfield as he wishes in the next two transfer windows, Karagounis’ stay at Craven Cottage might be a short one – but the gritty Greek’s already made quite an impression. He’s already eager to build on the win over West Brom and, with Mahamadou Diarra and potential new recruit Derek Boateng possibly off to the African Nations’ Cup in a couple of weeks, he could plenty more ground to cover.