Berbatov: Fulham felt ‘comfortable’

Dimitar Berbatov believed Fulham were always likely to hold onto their advantage in a topsy-turvy West London derby despite what he described as ‘childish’ second-half defending.

The Bulgarian striker had helped established the home side’s strong position in the contest with a quickfire double courtesy of two mistakes from Chris Samba. The QPR defender first felled Ashkan Dejagah to give away a penalty and then dallied on the ball in front of Damien Duff – and Berbatov freely admitted that he quickly targeted the error-prone centre back.

Yeah, you can see [players are nervous] sometimes. In the first couple of minutes you can see which players look nervous or [who] is having a bad game. So you try to push and press on them, which was the case with their player when we scored the second goal. You need to be clever in a situation like this because if you take advantage of them like you should, we score.

A second half slump almost saw Fulham squander their three-goal lead with the Whites indebted to goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer for two fine second half saves: the first from a Loic Remy penalty and a late stop from former Fulham forward Bobby Zamora. Berbatov, however, always felt his team were in control.

We weren’t nervous but we almost threw the game away. We had a comfortable lead in the first half – three goals is a lot – and the something in the second half, a bit childish maybe.

They scored the second goal and started to believe. But in the end we held onto the three goals we scored. We could have scored more but in the end three points was good for us.

The only time they can score is when we make a mistake, so the goal for them lifted their spirits. If you look back, you see mistakes and try to correct them next time, but now we’re going to celebrate the three points.

Berbatov also insisted that Sky Sports should have given the man-of-the-match award to Schwarzer after his goalkeeper’s fine display.

I think you should give [the man of the match award] to [Schwarzer], or I will be giving it to him in the dressing room, because it’s not the first time he’s saved a penalty. He’s a great goalkeeper and without him I don’t think we were going to win this game.

The 32 year-old was also quick to reaffirm that he’s happy at Craven Cottage and downplayed suggestions that Fulham were ever in any danger of going down themselves.

It’s great, I’m enjoying my football here. You can see it on the pitch, by the goals I score and the way I’m playing. It’s going great for me, and for the team, so I hope it continues this way.

We’ve always been safe. I don’t see why anyone should worry. We play good football and sometimes we make childish mistakes which is why we suffer, but if we correct this we will be even better.

Jol relieved after dramatic derby win

Martin Jol admitted he was mightily relieved after Fulham hung on to clinch a dramatic derby win over QPR at Craven Cottage tonight – as the Whites almost surrendered a three-goal lead.

The points looked safe after a Dimitar Berbatov brace and an own goal from Clint Hill put the home side three goals to the good after 41 minutes, but Adel Taraabt’s sensational solo goal just before the interval provided Rangers with a real shot in the arm. Loic Remy added a second after missing a penalty and things got even tenser after Steve Sidwell was sent off, with Fulham hanging on to gain revenge for December’s defeat at Loftus Road.

Speaking afterwards, Jol felt this west London derby was the archetypal game of two halves:

It was a great game for the spectators but it was two different halves. In the first half we played much better than them and we played some great football. But in the second half we probably made the mistakes they made in the first half.

At 3-1 you always know they will smell blood and their spirit was better in the second half. You shouldn’t concede a second goal but we did and we needed the keeper again to save the penalty. He’s a fantastic goalkeeper. So overall, we are a bit disappointed that we were 3-0 up and then made it a bit difficult for ourselves.

The Fulham manager felt Sidwell’s straight red for a challenge on Armand Traore was harsh and left his side hanging on towards the end.

The sending off was a bit harsh. He went for the ball and tried to pull his leg out of the tackle but he was red carded and that was difficult for us.

Much of the post-match praise went to Berbatov for another brilliant performance and Jol highlighted his striker’s all-round display rather than just his deadly finishes.

He worked ever so hard; that is what we like. You saw the penalty kick, he’s a specialist, and for the second, Damien Duff intercepted the ball and Dimitar scored again. He’s got 13 goals and he’s a special player for us.

The Fulham manager isn’t yet completely convinced that his side are safe, but has begun to consider the possibility of moving even further up the Premier League table.

We had three unexpected points against Tottenham Hotspur but we always felt this game against QPR would be vital. Hopefully 39 will be enough but it’s the only competition in the world where you can be 10th and still go down. There are a few clubs above us but we have a game in hand and hopefully we can go a bit higher in the league.

Berbatov brace builds Fulham’s unassailable advantage

For 44 minutes, it appeared as though this west London derby would prove as straightforward as last September’s sunny stroll when Fulham put six past Queen’s Park Rangers. Fired up by the memory of an abject pre-Christmas surrender at Loftus Road, Fulham were formidable, flying out of the starting blocks, and the speed of their start suggested that they might better last season’s margin. Dimitar Berbatov confidently converted a penalty and stroked home a second after being presented with the ball by an all too accommodating Chris Samba, before the hapless Clint Hill turned a John Arne Riise cross into his own net.

All three goals – and Rangers’ complete lack of organisation – demonstrated why Harry Redknapp’s side had struggled to keep pace with the rest of the Premier League. Just before the break, a stupendous solo goal from Adel Taraabt, his second such sensational strike against Fulham this season, seemed simply a consolation. It actually threatened to turn the tie on its head. Rangers were revitalised after the break. They should have had a second when Giorgis Karagounis, whose careless pass had allowed Taraabt to set off on his mazy dribble before the break, felled the Moroccan inside the box but Mark Schwarzer sprung to his right and saved Loic Remy’s tame penalty. Fulham’s reprieve was short-lived: two minutes later, Remy spun away from Phillipe Senderos and lashed a drive in off the underside of the crossbar. When Steve Sidwell saw red for a tackle on Armand Traore, the dynamics of the contest were totally transformed.

Fulham hung on as their home fans gleefully reminded their visitors of their perilous predicament. Perhaps it was QPR’s desperate plight that persuaded Redknapp to field Taraabt, Remy and the former Fulham striker Bobby Zamora in the same starting eleven. It was a high-stakes gamble that backfired badly. Rangers were robbed of the defensive solidity that had neutralised Berbatov at Loftus Road – and were far too open as a result. With their Bulgarian maestro to the fore, Fulham made the most of the gaps that quickly appeared.

Samba’s charity had a lot to do with Fulham’s fast start. Far from being the big-money replacement for Ryan Nelsen, he was the weakest link in a QPR back four that hardly covered itself in glory. One aberration followed another. A poor touch presented the ball to Ashkan Dejagah and a clumsy challenge conceded the penalty, which Berbatov tucked away with the minimum of fuss. That mistake seemed to transform the £12.5m centre back in a bag of nerves. He then inexplicably tried to dribble around Damien Duff twenty yards from his own goal, allowing Berbatov to steal in and roll his second of the net past a stranded Julio Cesar in an instant. Samba’s embarrassment was complete when he was bamboozled by a backheel from his opposite number Brede Hangeland and Riise’s cross rebounded into the net off Hill.

Fulham’s dominance was barely reflected by the half-time scoreline. Duff, who dovetailed delightfully with Riise down the Fulham left, almost surprised Cesar at his near post with a low shot and Hangeland, who had handed Fulham a timely boost last week by committing his future to the club with a new contract, headed wastefully wide when left unattended from the Irishman’s free-kick. The home side were in complete command, stroking the ball around imperiously and looking threatening with every attack. Berbatov caught the eye not just for his finishing, but a couple of majestic touches – the most breathtaking of which saw him bring down a high ball on the corner of the penalty area and burst away from Traore in the blink of an eye.

It was to Rangers’ credit that they managed to make a game of it. Were it not for a splendid Schwarzer save from Zamora, the visitors might have snatched a point after a much improved second half showing. It would have merely papered over the cracks of the abject defending that has blighted their second season in the top flight – and the outlook looks remarkably bleak. While Fulham could contentedly consider a late assault on the top half, Redknapp’s Rangers appear destined for the Championship.

FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Riether, Riise, Senderos, Hangeland; Karagounis, Sidwell; Dejagah (Emmanuelson 38; Frimpong 80), Duff, Ruiz; Berbatov. Subs (not used): Etheridge, Hughes, Richardson, Frei, Rodallega.

BOOKED: Riether, Senderos.

SENT OFF: Sidwell (78).

GOALS: Berbatov (pen 8, 22), Hill (o.g. 41).

QUEEN’S PARK RANGERS (4-2-3-1): Cesar; Bosingwa, Traore (Mackie 83), Samba, Hill (Onouha 45); Jenas, Mbia; Remy, Taraabt (Hoilett 74), Townsend; Zamora. Subs (not used): Green, Ben Haim, Granero, Park Ji-Sung.

BOOKED: Hill.

GOAL: Taraabt (45), Remy (51).

REFEREE: Lee Probert (Wiltshire).

ATTENDANCE: 25,117.

Settling the score

If one game epitomised the desperate nature of Fulham’s winter slump, it came at Loftus Road on December 15. Leaving that ground, Fulham’s home in name only for a couple of seasons before their return home almost a decade ago, after watching a performance hardly worthy of the name was a desolate experience. Spineless, supine, sacrificial: several synonyms could sum it up. Fulham were wretched and meekly surrendered in a second half that unfortunately isn’t forgettable.

The sight of Adel Taraabt, who famously sought a quick getaway from Craven Cottage after being substituted at half time in last season’s 6-0 drubbing, dribbling through the remnants of a lackadaisical Fulham defence to score QPR’s second, winning a loose ball from Brede Hangeland just past the half way line, will send a shiver down my spine for years to come. For me, it wasn’t so much that QPR had secured their first league win of the season and glimpsed survival after the poorest start in Premier League history, but that Fulham were so devoid of fight, passion and spirit. It seemed fitting that Mladen Petric’s deflected strike came too late – it was almost an apologetic afterthought.

Rivalry for me didn’t come into it, although it certainly will have bothered others. I grew up with a raging dislike of Brentford, who were a division above Fulham when I first started visiting Craven Cottage regularly and had aspirations of climbing higher, while Chelsea feel like more natural geographical rivals these days. Passions will rise in anticipation of Monday’s return fixture for many, however. 1983 still lingers long in the memory, an abject 3-1 defeat securing the Second Division title for Rangers, and the deathly phrase ‘Fulham Park Rangers’ should serve as a reminder of how far we’ve come in the years since Fulham conjured up images of the halcyon days of the 60s, the 1975 Cup final and the latter stages of Bobby Moore and George Best’s careers.

More recently, of course, the fortunes of the two clubs have been inextricably linked. From Mark Hughes’ own ‘ambition’ to that of Bobby Zamora and Andy Johnson, there’s been a fair bit of traffic travelling down the Askew Road towards Shepherds Bush. Hughes’ departure from the Cottage looks more and more like a moment of hubris that might prove one of his biggest managerial miscalculations – his time at Loftus Road saw an expensively assembled squad plumb depths that few pundits could have predicted in the summer – while his two striking recruits have endured uncomfortable injury-plagued spells at their new club. Andy Johnson’s lack of fitness was the reason why Fulham were unwilling to extend his contract, while Lorcan’s already adequately covered the subject of Zamora’s return.

Monday’s meeting assumes massive significance for QPR as Harry Redknapp runs out of games to prove he can still claim his Houdini mantle. It goes without saying that Rangers badly need a win, even though they’ve climbed off the foot of the table thanks to Arsenal’s pummeling of Reading on Saturday, but the importance of the fixture for Fulham shouldn’t be understated. Jol’s side have quietly crept towards the top half of the table – and as both Swansea and West Brom stumble ahead of them – there’s a slim chance that Fulham could climb even higher. The Whites have acquired the handy habit of finishing seasons strongly in recent years – and Monday’s game offers the rare opportunity to clinch consecutive London derby wins following the defeat of Tottenham before the international break.

Victory tomorrow night would prove cathartic for a number of the Fulham faithful. It shouldn’t be taken for granted, however. QPR do have the ability to score goals – Redknapp’s capture of Loic Remy and Zamora’s return to fitness have offered the strugglers a striking threat that they had previously lacked. If Fulham can console themselves that the mercurial talent of Taraabt might start on the bench, they’ll face a physical and explosive partnership in the shape of the French forward and a man whose ability to infuriate central defenders we know all about.

In their media comments in the build up to this game, it seems as though both Jol and the players have got the message. They seemed lacklustre and leaden-footed at Loftus Road. It wasn’t good enough. There’s a score to settle this time – and a few psychological scars to repair.

The Return Of Bobby Zamora

I remember feeling genuine shock when Bobby Zamora’s transfer from Fulham to QPR was announced. In fact I was so disappointed I treated the situation at the time with complete apathy. It really was a demoralising blow to lose a striker who had been so key to our success over the last few seasons and won who earnt a lot of adulation, if not love, for his stunning 19 goal season during that incredible Europa League run – to our most vicious rivals, no less! But hindsight is a wonderful thing; we’ve gone from strength to strength since he left, and his immediate replacement, Pavel Pogrebnyak, coincided with a fantastic run of form, demonstrating that actually Zamora was maybe more of a hindrance to the team than a help by the time of his departure. Monday marks the first time Zamora will line up in QPR colours since his switch, and as such it’s a good opportunity to have a look at a player who I appreciate, but can probably never really respect again.

The supporter-player dynamic between the fans on the Cottage terraces and Zamora himself was fascinating however. There was a genuine love-hate relationship, with fans wanting him to score goals for the good of the team and demonstrate limited appreciation without ever really warming to a player who visibly disliked them.

After a catastrophic goal return over his first few months at Fulham – after a goal on his debut in August he didn’t score again until we beat non-league Kettering in the FA cup – a number of fans were on his back. The supporters were split into two camps: those with him (responsible for the “his hold up play” cliché which became a running joke) and those against him. It was a huge shame though that there was even an “against him” camp for a player who did genuinely contribute significantly on the pitch to our highest ever league finish despite his lack of goals, and who showed little negative contribution really (you could never question his work rate and he didn’t say anything out of turn). The abuse was vicious and unnecessary and I do have some genuine sympathy for him.

However, there were two paths Zamora could have gone down after this. He could have risen above it and taken the one Chris Baird has since travelled; the Irishman has certainly undergone a remarkably transformation from boo-boy to cult hero. Instead, Zamora took the other and responded in kind. After Kettering he scored twice more in the 2008-09 season, both in front of his home crowd and both celebrated with a hand cupped to his ear as if to say “So what’re you saying now?” before hurling a few choice comments of his own at the stand.

This was the start of a frosty acquaintanceship, whereby Zamora would generally celebrate as if he just discovered his wife was being unloyal before cupping his ear to the crowd. There were a couple of extreme episodes between the striker and the infamous Babygrow Man, a fan at the front of the Hammy End who did not like Zamora nor think much of his ability and let it be known too, so when Zamora scored against Sunderland at home at the Putney End he turned, pointed, mimed himself eating a burger (presumably in reference to Babygrow man’s large belly) before quite clearly yelling “f*** off” in Babygrow’s direction. A surreal moment but a very real demonstration of how Zamora felt.

Then there were his inexcusable actions while he was managed by Martin Jol. The two clearly didn’t get on and Jol implied as much in his press conferences, once saying “He does’t like crosses, he doesn’t like defending, he doesn’t like the fans.”, but in that situation both parties must remain professional. Zamora instead leaked information to the press about players discontent in what really amounts to slander. Zamora’s exit was inevitable and clearly motivated, even if he tried to cover it up with a false impress of QPR’s ambition.

As I said, it was a real shame that this is how Zamora chose to behave. While I do not, and would never, condone malice from the stands – and would even go as far to say as if you give some then you should expect some back – I believe Zamora could have been a genuine legend in the same ilk as McBride had he chosen to behave differently. Strong, hard-working and possessing genuine guile and quality following a rocky career carved in the lower leagues, when on song Zamora was undeniably supreme (just ask Cannavaro!) and just the sort of player we love to support. Instead, we are left unfortunately disliking someone who fired us to a European final and unable to celebrate a forward’s 19 goal season.

So when Zamora returns on Monday, expect a chorus of boos and a player utterly determined to bite back. A crying shame indeed.

LRCN