Of all the changes that Rene Meulensteen instigated upon taking over from Martin Jol eight days ago, restoring Giorgos Karagounis to the first team might have been one of the most telling. The Greek veteran has never been short of passion, and while relying on a 37 year-old to anchor the midfield might not be a long-term solution, he has had an immediate impact. Karagounis put in an all-action performance against Tottenham in midweek and his display in the vital win over Aston Villa yesterday typified the energy and endeavour that Meulensteen will need to move Fulham away from the bottom of the table.
Meulensteen opted to match Aston Villa’s central midfield trio with three of his own, with Steve Sidwell returning to face his one of his old clubs alongside Scott Parker and Karagounis. It worked a treat. Parker, Karagounis and Sidwell have a combined age just short of a hundred, but you never would have guessed it. Where Parker has been battling against the t-ide in recent weeks, rushing around the field trying to put out fires, here Fulham’s extra man in the middle meant they were in control from the off and began to dictate play.
Whilst Karagounis can’t complete ninety minutes any more, he managed two matches in four days with the minimum of fuss. Such was his influence that Meulensteen kept him on the field far longer than against Spurs. It wasn’t surprising since Karagounis – who marries passion, fight and technical ability – embodies the kind of qualities that you require in a relegation fight. His ball carrying from deep injects a bit of life into what has previously been a predictable midfield pairing in Sidwell and Parker and created an early opportunity for Dimitar Berbatov.
Crucially against a side who like to keep the ball themselves, Karagounis rarely wasted a pass. He completed 25 out of 30 passes, many of them forward balls and none more important than the one that instantly turned defence into attack down in the left back area. Fulham were penned back by a bit of Aston Villa pressure having gone ahead, but Karagounis brought some composure to a potentially dangerous situation, turning out of trouble and clipping a clever ball to Berbatov short of the halfway line. Berbatov’s outrageous through ball with the outside of the foot released Kacaniklic and once Mike Dean pointed to the spot, the game wasn’t really in doubt.
The Greek warrior’s appetite for a scrap has never been in doubt. He refused to be off forced by a succession of feisty challenges and contributed in both aspects of Fulham’s play. A defence that had been shaky in recent weeks looked a lot more solid thanks to the shielding by the central midfield three, whilst the extra man in midfield allowed Berbatov and Fulham’s two wingers a chance to impress in advanced positions. One surging run and shot that flew over Brad Guzan’s bar from distance epitomised his effort and his final contribution was to send a majestic cross over from the right which John Arne Riise headed against the far post. It was fitting that an appreciative Craven Cottage afforded him a standing ovation when he was replaced by Kasami.
There’s one more moment that encapsulates the kind of character that Karagounis is. Upon walking off the pitch at half time, Karagounis noticed one of his compatriots rushing towards the tunnel waving a Greek flag. Fiercely patriotic, Karagounis ensured that supporter got his shirt as a souvenir. Meulensteen has spoken already of Karagounis’ personality and influence around the squad and, with only a few months to what might be his international swansong in Brazil, the Greek is determined to grab his first-team chance. On the evidence of his displays over the past week, it will be mutually beneficial for both the battling midfielder and his club.