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Kacaniklic lauds Berbatov’s ‘class’

Alex Kacaniklic might have scored the winner at West Brom yesterday to end Fulham’s miserable run but he preferred to deflect any praise in the direction of the peerless Dimitar Berbatov afterwards.

The Swedish winger enjoyed a successful return to the Fulham starting line-up after missing Saturday’s defeat by Swansea through injury and hailed his Bulgarian team-mate’s vision and ability as the main reasons why the Whites were able to end their alarming slump.

Berbatov’s always good. He’s a class player. He’s definitely one of the best players in the league.

Not many are better than him. He’s a top player and wants things to be on the top level. He demands a lot to get the best out of every player, but for me, it’s fine.

He’s so comfortable and just keeps the ball. He’s been at a top club in England and an international too and we always learn every day from him in training and looking at him in games.

Kacaniklic clinches vital Fulham victory

As a manager ending 2012 under pressure, Martin Jol enjoyed his return to the Hawthorns on New Year’s Day. The Dutchman, who spent two years as a player at West Brom, watched his Fulham side secure their first top-flight success at high-flying Albion thanks to a second half strike from Alex Kacaniklic. The Swedish winger’s clever finish was the perfect response after the visitors had surrendered the lead fashioned for them by Dimitar Berbatov and halted Fulham’s worrying descent down the Premier League table.

Introducing Kacaniklic in prace of Turkish teenager Kerim Frein was Jol’s only change to the side that succumbed to Swansea on Boxing Day and Jol would have been delighted with the way his side made light of their recent struggles in a composed and calm performance. Most impressively for a team that has dropped sixteen points from winning positions already this campaign, Fulham failed to buckle after Romelu Lukaku’s equaliser threatened to rouse West Brom shortly after half time and Kacaniklic kept his cool when he reached a raking ball from Byran Ruiz and to roll home his third goal of the second after Ben Foster had rashly rushed from his line.

West Brom would have viewed the visit of a Fulham side who started the day just four points from the relegation zone as a perfect opportunity to begin their assault on the top six after an outstanding first four months of the season. Yet, despite a noisy night in Birmingham hotel and their dismal recent run, it was Fulham who settled the brighter, limiting the Baggies to half chances from set plays. Dimitar Berbatov had already lashed the game’s best chance over the bar from 20 yards after collecting a stray backpass from Chris Brunt before the Bulgarian striker started and finished the flowing counter-attack that gave the Cottagers the lead their start more than merited. Berbatov’s floated pass from midfield sent Ashkan Dejagah away down the right and arrived to clinically convert an inviting cut-back after the Iranian international had tricked his way past Liam Ridgewell.

Berbatov had scored his first Fulham goals during a September stroll against the Baggies and it appeared as though Steve Clarke’s charges had learnt little from his first defeat as a manager. They allowed the former Manchester United man plenty of space to play the game at his own pace and there was none of the intensity that has made the Hawthorns such a difficult place for opponents to get a result this season. Lukaku laboured as an isolated front man for much of the first half and the Baggies’ best opportunities came in the form of headers that Gabriel Tamas, Gareth Macauley and Yusuf Mulumbu sent wide.

It didn’t take long for West Brom to rectify the situation after the restart. Marc-Antoine Fortune found Billy Jones, who burst past Matthew Briggs on his way into the penalty area and the full-back’s low cross was bundled home by Lukaku for his seventh goal in seven league starts since opting to join the Baggies ahead of Fulham on loan from Chelsea. The Belgian might have strayed offside, but the goal stood and his equaliser appeared to have altered the game’s momentum. Lukaku was inches away from adding a second moments later when he shrugged off Aaron Hughes and hit the outside of the post, before testing David Stockdale with a low shot. Mark Schwarzer’s understudy made a fine reaction save and former Fulham midfielder Zoltan Gera struck the near post with the rebound before Hughes athletically headed Chris Brunt’s drive over the crossbar.

With West Brom pushing for a second, Fulham caught Albion by surprise at the other end. Ruiz clipped a clever pass over the horribly square West Brom back four, locating Kacaniklic’s clever run between Macauley and Jones, and the Swede scampered around Foster to finish with his weaker right foot. Clarke threw on Shane Long and Peter Odemwingie in search of a second leveller but Fulham belied their poor defensive record to hang onto their first away win since September.

WEST BROMWICH ALBION (4-2-3-1): Foster; Jones, Ridgewell, Tamas, Macauley; Mulumbu, Brunt (Thorne 84); Fortune (Odemwingie 66), Gera (Long 66), Morrison; Lukaku. Subs (not used): Myhill, Jara, Dawson, Rosenberg.

GOAL: Lukaku (49).

FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Stockdale; Riether, Briggs, Hughes, Hangeland; Karagounis (Rodallega 76), Sidwell; Dejagah, Kacaniklic, Ruiz; Berbatov (Senderos 90). Subs (not used): Somogyi, Baird, Richardson, Kasami, Frei.

GOALS: Berbatov (39), Kacaniklic (58).

REFEREE: Mike Dean (Wirral).

ATTENDANCE: 25,436.

Progressing from ‘pretty’ to ‘purposeful’

Writing about Fulham as regularly as this correspondent does, you sometimes find yourself in some strange situations. One such moment was being trapped in a central London lift with the senior football correspondent from a leading British broadsheet just as Martin Jol’s appointment as Mark Hughes successor broke. As the only two occupants of a lift which was supposed to be transporting us from a charity lunch towards the Tube, we’d already been chatting about Craven Cottage and the like, when his smartphone buzzed with the news. I’ll remember his words – and the big grin that accompanied them – for a while:

That’s a great appointment. Jol will promote some of Fulham’s young talent, transform the style of play to a more continental approach and make you an attractive side to watch at the Cottage. Plus professionally, I love him – he’s always good for a quote.

All three points seem spot on so far, especially the last one. You can see why Jol’s so popular with the scribes when he offers lines like these, an assessment of Fulham’s ultimately academic attacking play at the Madjeski Stadium last week:

In Holland, we’ve got a phrase with blonde girls. They look good from afar – but are far from good. We looked good, but without a purpose.

Whether Jol prefers brunettes isn’t really our concern – although Fulham’s finest performers at Reading were Bryan Ruiz and Dimitar Berbatov – but you can’t argue with his analogy. All the pretty patterns that the pair created in fashioning a winning position – twice – amounted to nothing after the sort of shoddy defending associated with struggling sides allowed the hosts’ to pinch a point. It’s all very well being eye-catching up front, but if it leaves holes that seasoned Premier League performers like John Arne Riise, Brede Hangeland, Aaron Hughes and Mark Schwarzer can’t close, then Fulham can kiss goodbye to kicking on from the steady mid-table position they’ve occupied with regularity recently.

There has been outdoubted progress under Jol. His willingness to blood young talent has seen first Kerim Frei and then Alex Kacaniklic explode onto the Premier League scene and his capture of Dimitar Berbatov and Mahamadou Diarra for next to nothing when compared to the big money that’s splashing around in the modern game should still be applauded. The prospect of a Diarra-Ruiz-Berbatov axis is simply mouthwatering. Fulham are far less predictable than in past seasons, because as Rich over at Craven Cottage Newsround has pointed out this week, our system is suddenly a lot more symmetrical.

With a more fluid, European system in place, stopping Jol’s side isn’t as simple as sticking two men on Danny Murphy any more. Ruiz will probably spend most of the season floating from a central position behind Berbatov, with Diarra drifting forward dangerously from deep. The Mali midfielder’s ball-carrying is under-rated and with Damien Duff’s devastating early season form now being seriously challenged by an exciting new arrival in Ashkan Dejagah, Jol is spoiled for choice in offensive areas. That’s before he considers whether Berbatov might need a partner – poor old Mladen Petric must be feeling a little hard done by, having to make do with a place on the bench after his scintillating start to life in English football.

The most pressing concern, though, will be how alarmingly open Fulham appear at times. Without a classical midfield destroyer in the mould of a Dickson Etuhu – and Jol came curiously close to lamenting his departure briefly yesterday – the Whites have been unable to close out games. Late lapses have cost Fulham five points in the last month and the concession of silly free-kicks in dangerous positions has been just as disturbing as some of the downright desperate defending that followed. Even in open play, the central midfielders have often been caught too high up the pitch, leaving a lack of protection for the back four behind them, something that’s even more dangerous when Jol has given John Arne Riise a license to roam along the left the flank.

Giving up silly goals might just be the consequence of a couple of tactical tweaks designed to offer some of Fulham’s seriously impressive attacking talent some more roam in which to operate. If so, it’s a simple fix. With Mahamadou Diarra now fully fit and Chris Baird proving more than a mere stopgap alongside him, the pair could provide some sterner steel in front of a defence that will have to do a bit more work than in the Hodgson era. And asking your key lieutenants to attack the ball as if the action was taking place in the opposing penalty area, might see a few of those nervy set-play situations pass without triggering more heart-stopping moments in the Fulham penalty area.

Jol’s team in still one in transition. His first season at Fulham went far better than Andre-Vilas Boas’ introduction to English football down the road, and the given the ease which with the Whites are now finding the net, you could construct a case to suggest that they might not miss Mousa Dembele or Clint Dempsey as much as we thought back in August. Equally, Fulham are looking far more potent on their travels – and picking up points as opposed to slumping to dire away defeats. But’s Jol’s a winner – you sense that draws don’t give the Dutchman as much contentedness as Hodgson, which may owe something to the latter’s Italian influences. You can be sure that he’ll want pretty to be followed by successful when we come to write our assessment of his time at Craven Cottage.

Berbatov batters the Baggies

As far as Martin Jol was concerned the only silver lining in Fulham’s dismal defeat at West Ham a fortnight ago was that he had been reunited with Dimitar Berbatov. ‘The only positive was to see his class and quality again,’ smiled a wistful Jol. ‘I’ve missed it’. Even the Bulgarian couldn’t overturn a half-time 3-0 deficit at the Boleyn Ground but, after being handed a first Premier League start in six months by his new boss, Berbatov wasted little time in demonstrating just how he might enjoy life at Craven Cottage as a first-half brace ended West Brom’s unbeaten start under Steve Clarke.

Albion arrived in the capital confident that could end a 45 year wait for a league win at Fulham and Clarke resisted the temptation to tinker with the side that surprised Everton on September 1, which meant that Cottage cult hero Zoltan Gera spent the afternoon being seranded from the sidelines. The visitors didn’t see too much of the ball in the early exchanges but still fashioned the first chances with James Morrison drawing a fine save out of Mark Schwarzer from 20 yards after the Australian goalkeeper had easily fielded an early sighter from Peter Odemwingie. Those warnings seemed to spur Fulham into life as their pretty passing patterns had lacked penetration before Alex Kacaniklic came to the fore.

The Swedish international has started the new season the way he finished the last, having forced his way into the Fulham first eleven after an impressive loan spell with Watford, and he made both of Berbatov’s first two goals for his new club. The former Liverpool winger surged beyond Billy Jones, whom he tormented all afternoon, into the penalty area before Fulham’s new striker curled his cute cut-back around a helpless Ben Foster from fifteen yards. A matter of seconds after Jones had been denied a chance to equalise at the other end by a fine saving tackle from Aaron Hughes, Kacaniklic was running at the unfortunate full-back again and after Jones’ rash decision to dive in, Roger East had little option but to award a spot-kick, which Berbatov dispatched with the minimum of fuss. The former Manchester United man might have been celebrating a first half hat-trick had he steered a free header the right side of the post from Kacaniklic’s inviting cross four minutes earlier.

In between the two goals that made West Brom’s task uneviable, Odemwingie was sent off for an inexplicable kick at Sascha Riether’s groin in full view of btoh the referee and his assistant. There was little prospect of the Baggies turning the tide, so confidently were Fulham stroking the ball around at this point, but the Nigerian’s moment of madness, sparked by a soft confession of possession to the German defender, made things far more difficult for his team-mates. Clarke shuffled his pack, sending on-loan striker Romelu Lukaku and club captain Chris Brunt on at half-time, and both tested Mark Schwarzer in a sustained spell of second-half pressure from the visitors, but Fulham always looked likely to add to their advantage, with Chris Baird’s raking passes inviting Hugo Rodallega and Damien Duff to make the most of their numerical advantage.

Berbatov sent an ambitious effort over from the corner of the area, before two fabulous reaction saves from Foster denied Duff a deserved goal on his 350th Premier League appearance. The one-time England international showed terrific reflexes to get his gloves to Hugo Rodallega’s powerful drive – which deflected off Jonas Olsson on its way towards goal and susbtitute Pajtim Kasami sent a cross-cum-shot right across the face of goal.

The third did duly arrive a minute from time despite Foster’s best efforts: the goalkeeper palmed away Kasami’s cross, but was stranded once Rodallega’s header came back off the crossbar, allowing Steve Sidwell a simple tap-in. Jol smiled broadly and sent on young Alex Smith for his Fulham debut, but his attention will now turn towards a difficult trip to Wigan in a week’s time and ending the Whites’ unfathomable away day blues.

FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Riether, J.A. Riise, Hughes, Hangeland; Baird, Sidwell; Duff (Smith 90), Kacanaklic (Kasami 84); Berbatov; Rodallega. Subs (not used): Stockdale, Kelly, Briggs, Karagounis, Trotta.

GOALS: Berbatov (32, pen 45), Sidwell (89).

WEST BROMWICH ALBION (4-2-3-1): Foster; Jones, Ridgewell, McAuley, Olsson; Yacob (Rosenberg 76), Mulumbu; Odemwingie, Morrison, Fortune (Lukaku 45); Long (Brunt 45). Subs (not used): Myhill, Dawson, Dorrans, Gera.

SENT OFF: Odemwingie (38).

REFEREE: Roger East

ATTENDANCE: 25,691

Three and easy

It took only 57 seconds for Kevin Nolan to lash the Hammers' ahead yesterday

I always enjoy my trips to West Ham. There’s a historical bond between the clubs that stretches beyond Bobby Moore and 1975 to the likes of Leroy Rosenior and, even more recently, Andy Melville and Luis Boa Morte. More than that, though, the Hammers are a reminder of what football used to be like: a proper club that hasn’t forgotten its roots at the heart of London’s East End and embodies the blueprint that Trevor Brooking is now trying implement across the country for the Football Association after his education at the Boleyn Ground.

Unfortunately, Fulham are far too accommodating almost every time the Whites make the short trip down the District Line. Just as we’ve become accustomed to wretched away showings in the top flight these days, I’m probably a bit too blase about Fulham’s appalling record at Upton Park. Statistically speaking, West Ham are the side who average more points against us than any other since Jean Tigana guided Fulham back to English football’s elite at the turn of the millennium. Furthermore, we’ve mustered just two paltry wins at West Ham in that time – one was on our very first Premier League visit in 2001 and the other was a surprise FA Cup replay success, sparked by a wondergoal from Brian McBride, that perked up a hospitalised Chris Coleman four years later. But, for the most part, our performances at West Ham have been gallant failures or gutsy draws: like the late point secured by Phillipe Christanval after Vincenzo Montella made his debut from the bench. The memory of Junior Stanislas’ speculative injury-time effort taking a hefty deflection off Aaron Hughes and wrong-footing Mark Schwarzer just as we dared to dream that Roy Hodgson’s ten man might break the West Ham hoodoo in 2009 still lingers in the back of my brain.

As I wrote yesterday in the lead-up to the first London derby of the campaign, setting the right tone early was crucial. Sam Allardyce wrote in the programme yesterday about the atmosphere and frenzied pace of a meeting between two sides from the capital – this was the first of ten such clashes this season for both sides – and the Hammers’ boss will have identified this as a home banker in his quest to garner enough points to keep the Hammers well clear of the dreaded drop zone. On yesterday’s performance, the Irons look more like top ten contenders – but that might have had a fair bit to do with West Ham’s desire to respond immediately to their forgettable South Wales sojourn as well as Fulham’s generous defending.

Going behind to the fastest goal of the season might not have been in Martin Jol’s plans, but you know he would have seen it coming. Andy Carroll, who cantered around like a carefree schoolboy let out of lessons early in the warm-up, looked like a man instantaneously free of the pressure created by that hefty £35m price tag placed around his shoulders when Liverpool opted for him to replace Fernando Torres. When a manager and his team-mates believe in him and the side is constructed to his strengths, as he showed for the Anfield outfit at the tail end of last season and during his commanding display for Roy Hodgson’s England against Sweden this summer, Carroll is almost irresistible. The fact that his great mate Kevin Nolan is his captain again at West Ham probably helped clinch a loan move the old-fashioned number nine needed to reignite his career – and it was almost scripted that the pair would combine for the opening goal.

That Fulham conceded from the first high ball they had to deal with set the tone for the afternoon. Allardyce’s plans all came to fruition. Carroll, given the chance to contest a hopeful header from the back with a run at a static Brede Hangeland, soared high and flicked the ball beyond the Norwegian centre half. That allowed Ricardo Vaz Te, so lethal during West Ham’s promotion season last year, to saunter into the box beyond Aaron Hughes and his clever flick caught Sasha Riether out of position and Nolan arrived to send a first-time volley across Mark Schwarzer from twelve yards. 57 seconds was it all took – it was simply too straightforward.

Where West Ham were on the front foot and rampaging forward at will, Fulham were fitful. When the Whites did have possession (and they enjoyed slightly more of the ball than their hosts overall) they frequently squandered it and Mladen Petric was so starved of service that it seemed slightly harsh to withdraw him at half time. The visitors certainly didn’t make enough of Joey O’Brien’s presence as a makeshift left back: twice in the first twenty minutes, Damien Duff beat him with ease but Fulham to give the intelligent Irish winger the ball enough to exploit that weakness.

Instead, the only weaknesses were at the heart of a usually impregnable Fulham defence. The second goal was so sloppily conceded from a set-piece it left me – never mind Jol and his coaching staff – seething with rage. Fulham failed to screen the near post sufficently, Schwarzer should have been more decisive in his six-yard box to connect with Matt Taylor’s inswinging corner and a man of Winston Reid’s aerial ability was given far too much freedom to bend his run and power a header into the centre of the goal.

Coming back from 2-0 down is difficult but not impossible, especially when you consider that Jol had a fair bit of attacking talent to introduce from the bench. The third goal was perhaps the most frustrating of the lot. Mahamadou Diarra might have had a case for being impeded by Andy Carroll at this set-play but a man who has graced the Champions’ League with distinction and made all those appearances for Real Madrid should simply be stronger in that situation in front of a burly centre forward. Hangeland’s header away was clumsy but Fulham failed to close down Taylor from the sort of range where he’s been a menace for years – and paid the penalty.

There was a lot of opprobrium in the away end by this point and poor old Kieran Richardson, once a West Ham youngster, was the target of much of it. This was unfair. Richardson’s an excellent footballer, quietly efficient in midfield, and showed enough ambition to muster Fulham’s first shot on target, which really extended Jaaskelainen down to his left. Given that the versatile midfielder, good enough to be considered worth a serious run in Sven-Goran Eriksson’s England side when he broke through at Old Trafford, had hardly trained with his new team-mates after concluding a late switch from Sunderland yesterday, it was a big call to put him in central midfield alongside Steve Sidwell. Richardson, a willing worker and technically sound, will be far better than what he showed yesterday afternoon and is a real bargain at around £2m.

Fulham were far better in the second half once Dimitar Berbatov was introduced, although West Ham were in cruising mode by this point. The Bulgarian looked eager to make an impression, almost as if he was aggrieved to have to sit through the abject first forty five minutes (you weren’t the only one, Dimitar). His first touch was as resplendent as we remember and there were all the clever flicks and tricks to bring his team-mates into play. It was all a little academic but in a single half of football, Berbatov made five chances and that makes him our second most creative player of the season.

Whilst the defending was abject and the defeat proved a painful reminder of why anything more than mid-table is far too ambitious before Jol manages to cure Fulham’s chronic away form, there’s enough to suggest that the Whites won’t struggle for creativity going forward post-Dempsey and Dembele. Anyone suggesting that the Whites looked devoid of dynamism yesterday is right, of course, but should remember that Bryan Ruiz was ruled out with a hamstring injury. The Costa Rican has looked superb behind a lone striker after completing a full pre-season and Berbatov’s arrival will mean that Mladen Petric might have to play out wide. That creates competition for places and I felt Alex Kacaniklic was unfortunate to dropped after his fine start plus there’s Kerim Frei to return from injury.

We might have been well beaten at the Boleyn Ground – but that’s not unusual. In 1968, a side containing George Cohen as well as the late Johnny Haynes and Sir Bobby Robson were battered 7-2. Most Fulham fans would have taken three points from the first three games, considering that they included trips to Manchester United and West Ham. The season’s not decided in September, although Jol will be wanting his new-look side to set the record straight against West Brom after the international break.