Bettinelli blunder costs Fulham dear

A terrible goalkeeping error from Marcus Bettinelli cost Fulham the chance of ending West Brom’s unbeaten start to the season as Scott Parker’s side had to settle for a point having dominated the Championship’s early kick off this afternoon.

Bettinelli, who was furious at the award of the goal having felt he had been impeded by Charlie Austin as he tried to reach Matheus Pereira’s corner, only managed the tamest of contacts and allowed Semi Ajayi to head home the simplest of equalisers. The tall centre back was delighted to score his first goal for West Bromwich Albion, who were rewarded with a point for their late pressure on the Fulham goal.

The home side looked likely winners once Anthony Knockaert chipped Sam Johnstone from a tight angle outside the penalty area four minutes after half-time, although the on-loan winger later confessed that he was trying to find a team-mate at the far post. The goal was fitting reward for Fulham’s first-half dominance, but it would have worried Parker that his side are still labouring fruitlessly in front of goal despite enjoying so much possession.

Slaven Bilic’s side were disciplined in defence and set up to try and frustrate Fulham but the home side still fashioned a number of chances as they probed away patiently. Ivan Cavaleiro, who endured a frustrating afternoon out wide as he struggled to find a final ball, had a couple of early shots blocked and then an outstanding tackle from Nathan Ferguson denied Bobby Decordova-Reid as he prepared to pull the trigger.

Fulham should have taken the lead midway through the first half when a brilliant bit of vision by Harrison Reed freed Tom Cairney in behind the Baggies defence. The Fulham skipper opted to go high as he bore down on Sam Johnstone but the West Brom goalkeeper managed to tip his finish onto the bar. The former Aston Villa custodian then produced a couple of excellent reaction saves to deny Knockaert and Decordova-Reid in quick succession.

The pattern persisted into the second period, with a desperate lunge from Ajayi almost ending up in his own net as he tried to deal with a dangerous cross from Joe Bryan. Johnstone gathered a downward header from Mitrovic from a set play but Knockaert’s opportunistic finish appeared to set Fulham on the way towards three points – although Parker’s side failed to find the killer instinct.

The expected surge of Fulham pressure never really materialised with Johnstone turning over a Decordova-Reid shot on the turn and a long-range effort by Bryan was deflected wide. Instead, Albion were rejuvenated by Bilic’s double change midway through the second half when he threw on Kyle Edwards and Filip Krovinovic to inject some life into their attack.

Darnell Furlong flashed a drive into the side netting, but Fulham failed to heed the warning and retreated deeper and deeper. Ajayi nodded in the equaliser and the Baggies might well have nicked a winner as well when Furlong headed agonisingly wide from another Pereira corner. Fulham will need to be much more assertive if they have serious ambitions of joining the automatic promotion race.

FULHAM (4-3-3): Bettinelli; S. Sessegnon (Odoi 90), Bryan, Mawson, Ream; Reed, Decordova-Reid (Onomah 85), Cairney; Knockaert, Cavaleiro, Mitrovic. Subs (not used); Rodak, Le Marchand, McDonald, Johansen, Kamara.

BOOKED: S. Sessegnon, Odoi.

GOAL: Knockaert (49).

WEST BROMWICH ALBION (4-2-3-1): Johnstone; Furlong, Ajayi, Bartley, Ferguson; Livermore (Krovinovic 59), Sawyers; Phillips (Edwards 59), Pereira, Diangana (Robson-Kanu 69); Austin. Subs (not used): Bond, O’Shea, Brunt, Zohore.

BOOKED: Furlong.

GOAL: Ajayi (80).

REFEREE: David Webb (Lancashire).

ATTENDANCE: 17,770.

Back to Business

With the first international break of the season complete, it’s time to get our minds focused again on Fulham. We had just the four first teamers in action for their countries in Mitrovic, Ream, Sessegnon and Christie and it looks as though everyone has come away unscathed. We’ll find out tomorrow if we have any other injury concerns, but I think that Parker has a squad with a full bill of health. Harry Artur is suspended, though, so we know already that he won’t feature this weekend.

We have our toughest match of the season so far coming up on Saturday. At least on paper, that is. West Brom have always been a tough nut to crack and now, under the leadership of Slaven Bilic, we are up against a side vying for automatic promotion. They are unbeaten this season in the league with three wins and three draws putting them in fourth position in the table. Last time out they came back from two goals down against Blackburn to win 3-2, so we know that this team has a bit of metal about them. Encouragingly for us, though, they have failed to keep a clean sheet this season, so with our front three of Mitrovic, Cavaleiro and Knockaert we should be able to trouble a leaky defence.

We’ll have to look out for tricky winger Grady Diangana, on loan from West Ham. The England U21 international has scored three goals this season and is the sort of player who gives defenders headaches. He, alongside Charlie Austin and Kenneth Zohore, will give us something to think about. The Baggies squad has a tonne of experience and know-how at this level, so we will need to massively up our game from the draw in Cardiff if we are to get anything.

Winning this game would send out the message that we are going to be fighting at the right side of the table come May. It will hopefully give us a better idea of where we are as a squad under Parker’s management. If I’m honest, I don’t think we have seen the best of this Fulham squad yet. OK, the Millwall game was special, but we need to be playing consistently near that level if we are to go up. Everything went right for us that night, but we are going to have very few games were that is the case. We still seem to start games slowly which is something that we desperately need to get out of our system. With the talent in our squad other teams should be shaking in their boots with the prospect of facing us, but everyone knows that defensively we aren’t as solid as we could be. This gives other teams hope against us.

I suppose the biggest question at the minute for Parker to be pondering is who does he play in goal. Marcus Bettinelli has been a great servant for this club, but I worry at the amount of mistakes being made in goal. While I still think that he is just going through a slump, and is a much better keeper than what he is showing at the minute, I can completely understand the calls to let Marek Rodak, our very highly rated number two, have a chance. I think Parker will stick with Betts for now, but I’d imagine that he doesn’t have too many chances left.

As I’ve said before, this will be our biggest challenge of the season so far. Hopefully at 1430 on Saturday we can just enjoy the rest of the weekend’s football after watching Fulham romp to another win.

#COYW

Parker’s Fulham begins to take shape

After six league games and a League Cup experiment, we’ve got a pretty good idea of what Scott Parker wants his Fulham team to be. Ahead of the most recent game in Cardiff, Scott hinted at the idea that there’s no right or wrong way in football but he believes this controlling, possession-based style is not only how he wants to play but is what puts Fulham in the best position for winning games of football. The start of the season has been mixed with the Whites unable to cope with Barnsley’s swarming pressing in the opening game and then producing the most dominant display in Championship history with a 4-0 decimation of Millwall after close-fought victories over Blackburn and Huddersfield. Nottingham Forest managed to overcome the starvation of the ball with Lewis Grabban clinically putting away their two only real chances of the game, whilst on Friday, a red card saw the trip to Cardiff transformed from Fulham pushing for a winner to battling for a good point in the end.

During this period, academy product Steven Sessegnon tied down the right-back position, thus eliminating one of the few question marks in the starting eleven. The older of the Sessegnon twins will admit he could have done better a few goals against this season but has shown a bite and confidence at full-back that hasn’t really been seen since Ryan Fredericks. Steven has already made more interceptions than any other Fulham player so far this season and looks the part as he looks to follow his brother’s path in establishing himself as a starter for a Fulham side that gets promoted back to the Premier League.

The goalkeeping position remains somewhat in flux. We’ve not been comfortable in our starting goalkeeper since Mark Schwarzer, who left Fulham in 2013. Marcus Bettinelli is a fine goalkeeper in the Championship but I’m still unsure on his potential to win us points and matches. In six fixtures, ‘Betts’ has conceded five goals, made five saves and has two clean sheets. I actually think that the defence has done a good job in reducing the volume of quality chances against our goalkeeper overall but where are the saves when we need it most? The moment we get caught on the transition, where is the goalkeeping equivalent of putting away that 1v1? I don’t think we’ve seen it yet and after Marek Rodak’s promising display at Craven Cottage against Southampton, the pressure is back on Bettinelli (and not for the first time in his Fulham career) to keep ahold of that starting goalkeeper position.

Back to the style of play, under Slavisa Jokanovic in the promotion season, four of Fulham’s top five in terms of short passes completed was midfielders Tom Cairney, Stefan Johansen, Kevin McDonald and Oliver Norwood. So far this season under Scott Parker, three of the top five are Tim Ream, Alfie Mawson and Joe Bryan, with Steven Sessegnon on pace to take over Tom Cairney to enter the top five. In every league game this season, Fulham’s most common passing combination has been Mawson either playing to or receiving from his centre back partner (Denis Odoi in the first game, Tim Ream in the subsequent matches). This does appear to show a far more passive and patient approach from Scott Parker’s Fulham as opposed to Slavisa Jokanovic’s midfield heavy approach.

Fulham visually may have somewhat of a creative problem, but only five teams are above the Whites for shots per game with Fulham level with Middlesbrough and only four teams have scored more with Fulham level with Leeds, Luton and West Bromwich Albion so the numbers don’t quite back that up but it’s perhaps arguable that Fulham have somewhat struggled to create clear-cut chances, a beauty from Tom Cairney, a couple of them from Ivan Cavaleiro and a Mitrovic penalty accounts for four of our ten scored whilst Mitrovic’s header at Huddersfield was created by a moment of madness from Juninho Bacuna. It’ll be interesting to see this progress after the international break with Scott Parker seemingly unsettled on the final piece to his midfield trio: Tom Cairney was partnered by Kevin McDonald and Stefan Johansen on the opening day before Harry Arter came in to tie down the holding role but most recently Harrison Reed came in for Johansen to take the holding role and Bobby Decordova-Reid has most frequently come into the midfield for his league cameos so far this season.

It’s been a mixed start for Scott Parker’s men with a style of play now very clear but the next step must be improving the link between defence and attack – in the five games we’ve conceded in this season, we’ve won just one of them. High possession is simply going to be how we play this season and once relationships continue to build, the teams settle and momentum comes into play, you hope Fulham can build upon a decent points return from the first six and really start to take a stranglehold on a side expected to compete for automatic promotion.

Fulham’s fortitude is a positive sign

The overwhelming emotion after Fulham’s draw at Cardiff City on Friday was one of frustration. Disappointment after a chance to take all three points from a potential promotion rival slipped away. Anger at an experienced professional like Harry Arter, whose lack of awareness moments after being booked drew him into a situation where a red card placed his side’s position in doubt. Opporbrium towards another referee who appeared eager to book Fulham players, but showed a single yellow to a Cardiff man despite their sixteen fouls. Angst after Fulham played in fits and starts and never really worked up a head of steam after cancelling out a very preventable opener scored by Josh Murphy.

But strip out the raw emotion and there are some positives to be found. Mostly, in terms of the character of a side that found themselves under serious pressure, a man down in the final quarter, and remained unbowed. It was right that Scott Parker lauded the resolve of his players after the final whistle – there’s no doubt that last season’s Fulham side would have folded in a similar scenario. Tim Ream, Alfie Mawson and Joe Bryan were excellent in defence – whilst Aleksandar Mitrovic’s ability to do unglamorous defensive work at set plays played a crucial part in the closing stages. This was a precious point to cling onto – that could so easily have slipped away.

Parker managed the game well, too, following Arter’s moment of madness in the corner. He immediately recognised Fulham’s predicament called for Stefan Johansen’s tireless running after the Norwegian had been left out of the starting line-up. The removal of Ivan Cavaleiro and Anthony Knockaert made sense as did the decision to shore up the defence with the late introduction of Maxime Le Marchand. The Fulham manager might have voiced his frustration with how his side had used their attacking weapons in the first half, but his players saw out the game professionally in a hostile environment, limiting Cardiff to just two clear-cut chances. For a team with definite defensive frailties that was particularly encouraging.

There are, of course, still things to work on. Fulham don’t move the ball as quickly as they might when probing for an opening, a point picked up on by Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink during his television punditry. It certainly seemed that they didn’t utilise the potency of their wingers regularly enough last night – and left Mitrovic starved of the sort of service he thrives upon. Fulham’s goal was a thing of beauty, but it was too much of a rarity given the way Parker wants his team to play.

To go behind having dominated both proceedings and possession was a real kick in the teeth, but the goal was a calamity. Ream and Mawson are excellent with the ball at their feet for centre halves but the more direct ball to Cavaleiro was a risky one with Harrison Reed, who looked largely anonymous on his first start, Arter and Cairney all unavailable for a short pass. Cavaleiro surrendered possession far too cheaply on his own halfway line and the defensive line was horribly exposed, with Mawson much deeper than his colleagues. Steven Sessegnon, who looked lively at the other end of the pitch, had ventured forward leaving Josh Murphy with a run through to the penalty area, which Mawson only belated attempted to narrow. The winger’s shot was not firmly into the corner by any means – and questions can rightly be asked of Marcus Bettinelli’s positioning and his failure to stop the shot. Such analysis might seem harsh, but the Championship is an unforgiving league – and opponents will relish highlighting any deficiencies.

But the toughness of a team is measured in how they respond to adversity. Bettinelli answered with a magnificent reaction save to keep the deficit at one – and his team-mates went up the other end to score a goal of exquisite quality. The approach play from the back was a little more direct, both Mitrovic and Cavaleiro wandered menacingly towards the box and two lovely touches from Cairney and the Portuguese winger laid a simple finish on a plate for the Serbian striker. Fulham’s frustration will have been that they weren’t able to build on this platform in the second half.

The visitors’ riposte was encouraging. After a shaky start at Barnsley, Fulham have put together a decent opening month. Today’s games will adjust the early league table somewhat, but ten points from six games gives Parker, still a remarkably inexperienced manager lest we forget, something to build upon. He has clearly sought to go back to the Jokanovic playbook in a bid to loose the shackles on Fulham’s most adventurous players and there will still be a lag time in terms of getting his ideas across.

But Fulham, notoriously slow starters to Championship seasons, have shown enough of that silky football to suggest that they can feature heavily in the promotion picture. And if Parker can align that flowing football with the sort of steel shown in the second half in Wales last night then the results could be worth watching as autumn gives way to winter.

Parker questions Arter dismissal

Scott Parker questioned referee Tim Robinson’s decision to send off Harry Arter after the Whites clung on for a point on a tempestuous night in Cardiff.

The Fulham midfielder, who spent last season on loan with the Bluebirds, was shown a second yellow card for simulation after clashing with Cardiff captain Sean Morrison. Parker felt that there was contact on his player and suggested that the referee might have been too hasty in pulling out his cards.

The question you have to ask yourself is: did he get touched? If he’s got touched, then it’s a foul. Now maybe he has gone down a little bit late, but if he doesn’t go down then they get a corner. I understand what we’re saying here, but if he’s been touched, then it’s a foul. The big question is, has he touched him? And for me, [Morrison’s] clearly gone across him and affected him. That’s just my point, that’s how I see it.

You need to understand, this game’s being played at a ridiculous pace, and when we look at things nice and slow in replays, frame by frame, of course things always look worse. At the end of the day, when the player’s on the field running at pace… Look, I see it for what it is, I understand that, but my point is that if he’s been touched then it’s a foul.

The Fulham manager felt that the dismissal was the pivotal moment in a match that his side had largely dominated until that point – but he was pleased with Fulham’s application as they hung on for a precious point.

It definitely cost us, for sure. I thought first half we were poor and I was really disappointed with us at half-time. Second half we got more control, played the ball a little more, waited for our moment, moved them around a little bit more, and if let like we got a foothold in the game, and I just felt it was a matter of time until we got on top of that.

And then going down to 10 men against a team like Cardiff, a tough opposition, they put a lot of pressure on us, and ultimately I look at it as a point well gained.

Ten-man Fulham fight for a point

Fulham have long been applauded for their artistry with the ball, but Scott Parker’s side had to show guts and organisation tonight as they left Cardiff with a precious point having been reduced to ten men midway through the second half when Harry Arter was shown a second yellow card for simulation.

The Irish international was dismissed after tumbling to the floor following a challenge from Cardiff captain Sean Morrison. The assistant referee, closest to the incident by the corner flag, signalled for a corner to the home side, whilst the referee Tim Robinson initially appeared to give a free kick to Fulham, before changing his mind and fumbling in his pocket for his cards. Arter’s dismissal meant the Londoners had to show considerable fortitude to cling on for a draw, with Morrison missing the clearest opportunity – sending a late header wide after being left unattended at the back post.

The frenzied finale stood in stark contrast to the first period, where Fulham had dominated possession and spurned several chances to open the scoring. A perfectly weighted through ball from Tom Cairney sent Joe Bryan storming into the Cardiff box, but the Fulham full back was denied by a sprawling save from Alex Smithies at his near post. Three minutes later, Ivan Cavaleiro kept his feet in the area despite being hauled back by Morrison and crossed for Anthony Knockaert, who saw his first shot blocked before firing the rebound wide with his right foot.

There was a variation to Fulham’s subtle build up when Mitrovic nearly flicked a more direct ball from Alfie Mawson over Smithies but Cardiff goalkeeper was alert to the danger. Another flowing move saw Mitrovic produce a superb spin at the back post to work a shooting opportunity, but the Serbian striker then produced something of a tame effort when he pulled the trigger.

Cardiff struggled for a sight of goal for much of the half although a mistake from Mawson almost let the home side in, only for the former Swansea centre half to atone in the nick of time with a fine saving challenge as Robert Glatzel lined up a shot. After all of Fulham’s possession they fell behind on the stroke of half-time when Aiden Flint nicked the ball away from Cavaleiro as he tried to turn on the halfway line and freed Josh Murphy with a threaded ball down the left. Murphy sauntered into the box and, after Mawson failed to narrow the angle, drove a shot across Marcus Bettinelli and into the far corner. The Fulham goalkeeper got a hand to the effort – and probably should have kept it out.

Parker’s side might have been two down just moments later. This time, Bettinelli got his angles right at his near post and pushed away Glatzel’s close-range effort as he appeared certain to open his Cardiff account. The visitors showed great character to level matters almost instantaneously, with a flowing move culminating in a moment of Cairney magic to free Cavaleiro, whose first-time cross was clinically converted by Mitrovic for his fifth goal in as many games.

Fulham picked up where they had left off in the second half, although Neil Warnock’s side did at least manage to limit the number of clear-cut opportunities. Steven Sessegnon created one superbly for Mitrovic, who found half a yard of space but saw his shot deflected wide. The former Newcastle forward then turned creator for Arter, who screwed a drive wide from a promising position, before the former Cardiff loanee was shown two yellow cards in quick succession to put Fulham’s position under considerable question.

Referee Robertson, who had proven reluctant to deal with Cardiff’s physical approach all evening, somehow missed Lee Peltier wrestling Mitrovic to floor at the far post as Fulham mounted a rare attack – and the Whites bravely resisted a late Cardiff onslaught. Glatzel sent a free header a couple of yards wide, before Morrison missed the target at the back stick as he augmented the hosts’ attack in search of a winner.

Parker remonstrated with the officials after the final whistle, but the Fulham boss will have been pleased with side’s fight to claim a point that looked unlikely after Arter’s ill-judged indiscretion.

CARDIFF CITY (4-2-3-1): Smithies; Peltier, Bennett, Morrison, Flint; Bacuna, Ralls; Whyte (Hoillett 64), Murphy (Mendez-Laing 81), Tomlin (Paterson 64); Glatzel. Subs (not used): Day, Vaulkes, Nelson.

BOOKED: Bacuna.

GOAL: Murphy (42).

FULHAM (4-3-3): Bettinelli; S. Sessegnon, Bryan, Mawson, Ream; Reed, Arter, Cairney (Le Marchand 89); Knockaert (Johansen 71), Cavaleiro (Kamara 81), Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Rodak, Christie, McDonald, Onomah.

BOOKED: Arter, Bettinelli, Mawson, Cairney.

SENT OFF: Arter (68).

GOAL: Mitrovic (45).

REFEREE: Tim Robinson (West Sussex).

ATTENDANCE: 22,631.