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Petric loving life at Fulham

The latest edition of Halftime, Fulham’s magazine for their younger supporters, carries an interesting interview with Croatian forward Mladen Petric, who the fans have seen far too little of lately.

The former Hamburg forward started the season in terrific touch, scoring twice against Norwich after a terrific pre-season following his free transfer in the summer. Since being troubled by an untimely muscle injury, Petric has found starts harder to come by – especially after the arrival of Dimitar Berbatov in August – but his predatory instincts are a real benefit to the side, as shown by the manner in which he forced home Fulham’s third goal against West Ham in injury time last week.

Petric admits he hardly needed convincing to join Fulham having played against them in the legendary Europa League semi-final, scoring Hamburg’s goal with a powerful free-kick in the second leg, and after playing under Martin Jol at the German side. He also got a favourable first impression of Craven Cottage, which he described as ‘not like most grounds – it’s nice and traditional’.

The 32 year-old says he’s really enjoying life in south west London:

Yes, of course! I had a fantastic pre-season and then I made a good start to the new campaign in the Barclays Premier League. I was a bit unlucky with a small muscle injury but now I am fit again. I hope to get a bit more time on the pitch in the second half of the season and I will do my best in training to show the gaffer that I deserve it.

Petric is also relishing the opportunity to test himself in the Premier League, which he admitted was always a lifelong aspiration. He’s already troubled some of the top defences – having played a key part in Fulham’s second goal at Old Trafford back in August and scored against Manchester City at Craven Cottage.

I don’t know if it’s [the Premier League] the hardest, but it’s the best league in the world. There are so many good players here and so many superstars at each club. If you compare it to Germany, only Bayern Munich really have the big names.

Petric, who first shot to prominence with Basel and Grasshoppers in Switzerland, has made his unique bow and arrow celebration famous – and the Fulham fans will be hoping to see a lot more of it before the season’s out.

I am thinking of stopping it! It started as a celebration after the birth of my daughter. But the fans seem to like it and want me to do it if I score so maybe I will keep it!

The striker is targeting a higher finish than last season and insists he’s not given up on the possibility of European football returning to the Cottage. Petric might have had to fight for a first team place after his injury lay-off but his perseverance and reading of the game – not to mention his tireless running up front – make him a handy weapon for Jol to have at his disposal during the second half of the season.

Whites battle for vital West Ham win

The morning headlines will make much of Dimitar Berbatov’s 32nd birthday. The Bulgarian stooped to head in Fulham’s opener, sparkled far more against West Ham than he had done for several weeks in a Fulham shirt, and – in a sprint to try and secure possession as Martin Jol’s side sought to cling on to a vital victory – sustained a hamstring injury that is likely to rule him out with another renunion with Manchester United on Saturday evening.

Whilst Berbatov was the main attraction, dropping into midfield to link the play in his usual languid fashion, Fulham finally had a bit of thrust up front and guile behind their laconic forward. It was the Colombian Hugo Rodallega, who has produced only in patches since arriving on a free transfer from Wigan in the summer, who provided a timely injection of belief after the home side had threatened to throw away yet another winning position. Rodallega somehow outjumped three West Ham defenders to nod Damien Duff’s cross past Jussi Jaaskelainen barely a minute after Berbatov had let Kevin Nolan stroll onto Mark Noble’s quickly-taken free-kick and lash home the equaliser.

Fulham’s performance was far from first class and they were fortunate to take the lead when they did as any one of three attackers might have been gflagged offside from Duff’s dangerous free-kick. James Tomkins appealed in vain for the decision as Berbatov squeezed his header in from the tightest of angles at the far post before nearly colliding with an advertising hoarding at the Putney End. The Bulgarian looked across at the assistant before being enveloped by joyous team-mates and the television replays suggested he was at least a yard offside.

A fiesty midfield battle between Giorgis Karagounis and Mohamed Diame raged for much of the hour that Fulham’s Greek veteran was on the field, although the Senegalese midfielder was more incesed with the rough nature of Steve Sidwell’s robust challenge that earned him a booking. In front of those two, Bryan Ruiz offered glimpses of creativity but was visibly tiring by the time that Jol opted to introduce Ashkan Dejagah and the Iranian winger’s pace – as Fulham reverted to a more traditional 4-4-2 – unsettled the Hammers’ defence. An even midfield battle saw much of the home side’s first half threat provided by Berbatov, whilst Nolan nodded the visitors’ best chance inexplicably wide from an inviting Diame cross.

Sam Allardyce threw on Carlton Cole and Andy Carroll, who had terrorised Fulham on his West Ham debut back in August, in an attempt to salvage a point. The double change gave the visitors a far more physical presence up front, underscoring Jol’s decision to replace Aaron Hughes with Philippe Senderos. That move looked far from sensible when Senderos squandered possession in the Fulham box, allowing Nolan a low shot from an acute angle – and the hosts were indebted to a sprawling save from Mark Schwarzer. The Australian goalkeeper also saved smartly from Carroll shortly after his introduction – but it was Fulham who found a further goal in stoppage time.

Mladen Petric, who had spurned a glorious chance with a tame side-footed finish moments after replacing Berbatov, displayed his predatory instincts by following in a Rodallega header and forcing a shot goalwards after the grounded Jaaskelainen had parried the initial effort. The Croatian’s shot rolled off the post and over the line via Joey O’Brien as the defender desperately tried to clear the danger. This vital victory was only Fulham’s second of the new year – and lifted Jol’s side above the Hammers and into twelve in the table.

FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Riether, J.A. Riise, Senderos, Hangeland; Karagounis (Baird 66), Sidwell; Ruiz (Dejagah 66), Berbatov (Petric 78), Duff; Rodallega. Subs (not used): Etheridge, Hughes, Frimpong, Davies.

BOOKED:Sidwell, Riether.

GOALS: Berbatov (10), Rodallega (49), O’Brien (o.g. 90).

WEST HAM UNITED (4-2-3-1): Jaaskelainen; Demel (Taylor 67), Tomkins, Reid, O’Brien; Diame, Noble; Nolan, Jarvis, J. Cole (Carroll 76); Chamakah (C. Cole 56). Subs (not used): Henderson, Pogatetz, O’Neil, Vaz Te.

GOAL: Nolan (48).

REFEREE: Chris Foy (St. Helen’s).

ATTENDANCE: 24,791.

Up next: Aston Villa (h)

Dimitar Berbatov is back after missing Fulham's last two games with a thigh problem

The international break seems to have lasted much longer than the thirteen days that separate the sickening concession of Jose Fonte’s last-gasp leveller on the south coast from early morning optimism as Aston Villa come to town. The natural reaction to the concession of another late goal to follow Edin Dzeko’s winner for Manchester City at the Putney End the previous weekend was one of fatalistic acceptance of a frankly Fulhamish away display, but given that St. Mary’s served an insane afternoon of pulsating football, a more reasoned assessment – reached on reflection, admittedly – left you grateful for a point after Martin Jol’s side had delivered a dreadful first half performance.

You don’t need to have more than a passing knowledge of the Premier League these days to know that Fulham might as well enter two different sides in the competition: a Craven Cottage XI and the team that travels more out of neccessity than any hope. Jol did diligently improve the Whites’ away record last season, but playing Fulham at their historic home ground is not something many teams relish. Before Roberto Mancini’s men finally broke down dogged resistance last month, Jol’s side had scored eight without reply at the Cottage and Mladen Petric, Dimitar Berbatov and – most miraculously of all – Mahamadou Diarra – all available for selection again after injury, there’s an unsettling unexpectation that Fulham should pose some problems for Paul Lambert’s side this afternoon.

Lambert succeeds a compatriot in the Villa dugout after Alex McLeish’s ill-fated arrival from the blue half of Birmingham failed to provide too many sparks. The former Blues boss began with a goalless draw at the Cottage last August – a game that was also Jol’s first league match since replacing Mark Hughes – but the early weeks of the new season have only served to underline what a huge task Lambert has taken on after his impressive stewardship of Norwich City. Villa, who look as though they are badly missing the influence of Richard Dunne at the heart of their defence, have scored just five goals in their last twelve league games and Lambert has had to field questions about the squad status of some of his big earners, especially Darren Bent, who could be omitted again in favour of Christian Benteke, who scored twice for Belgium in the week.

While Villa search for a first away league success since January, Jol will hope his side can recover some of their early-season verve as his key players return. Petric had an electric start to the season, but hasn’t been fully fit since mid-September, and the prospect of the Croatian rekindling his exciting partnership with fit-again Berbatov points towards Brad Guzan having a busy afternoon. Jol will have a few interesting selection dilemmas before handing in the teamsheet with Bryan Ruiz, who injured a groin whilst with Costa Rica this week, facing a late fitness test. Fulham have badly missed Diarra’s dynamism in midfield but whether the former Monaco man is sharp enough to return to the starting line-up remains to be seen.

It would certainly be harsh if Diarra displaced either Chris Baird, whose picture should appear next to ‘utility man’ in the next Oxford English Dictionary, or former Villa midfielder Steve Sidwell, who admitted this week that he feared for his career after his hernia injury turned into a groin problem that baffled a succession of doctors. With the likes of Kieron Richardson and Giorgis Karagounis, who together turned the tide of that mad match at Southampton as second half substitutes, pushing for places and Kerim Frei and Ashkan Dejagah – impressive in the Under-21’s dismantling of Chelsea – available again, Jol suddenly looks spoilt for choice in midfield.

Villa might have endured their worst start since the First Division became the Premier League, with a paltry five points from seven games, but there’s plenty of talent at Lambert’s disposal. Brett Holman will hope to test his international colleague Mark Schwarzer, who has made more saves than any other top flight custodian so far this season, and if Fabian Delph and Marc Albrighton can return to the heights that made the pair two of the brightest talents in English football, then there should be plenty for the likes of Benteke and Gabby Agbonlahor, always irritating good against Fulham, to feed off. Lambert’s latest employers have only lost three of their last 22 top flight tussles with Fulham and have drawn five of their last eight fixtures at the Cottage. It should be fascinating.

MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Riether, J.A. Riise, Hughes, Hangeland; Diarra, Sidwell; Duff, Ruiz, Berbatov; Petric. Subs: Stockdale, Briggs, Baird, Karagounis, Richardson, Kacaniklic, Rodallega.

Classy on the continent

Perhaps it’s the fact that I wasn’t there or that the a weekend on the Côte d’Azurs till sounds supremely exotic to me. Maybe it’s the memories of how a French revolution transformed Fulham from a plodding mid-table team to one that stormed to the Premiership promised land in ten months during my teenage years. I can’t blame it on alcohol, as I can’t drink at the moment, but watching the way Fulham completely dismantled Claude Puel’s Nice, who begin their Ligue 1 campaign next weekend, last night filled me with the sort of excitement Charlie found in the chocalate factory.

It’s only pre-season and there’s an important rider to attach here. However good Fulham – and particularly Mladen Petric – have looked these summer, there are no points awarded until August 18th. The excitement of early season can soon dissipate should results leave you looking anxiously over your shoulder or a key player – like Brian McBride in 2007 – be lost to injury. But there’s definitely something building on the banks of the Thames that we’ve not seen since the Damiano, Propos and Tigana era.

Here’s what a candid Martin Jol told the July edition of Fultime about changing the pattern of play in his first year at Craven Cottage:

When I came in I knew that despite being a stylish club, at the same time we were perhaps a bit too conservative. We played in an old fashioned English way, but we had had success with that. But that wasn’t a system that I was used to. I wanted the team to become more adventurous in its approach. It was something that took a bit of time to implement too, because every time we suffered a bad resuylt or looked a bit indifferent you could sense a doubt or concern. In all honesty, the players found it tough and that was the biggest challenge – to convince them to play in a different way. I understand that, and it is something that takes time. But as I always say, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’.

People are notoriously resistant to change. As Russ Goldman has outlined here before, Jol’s tweaks to what seemed a successful side appeared initially like unecessary meddling with a winning formula. Except the innate conservatism of Roy Hodgson’s side worked whilst teams underestimated Fulham but an ageing side seemed far more predictable three years down the line. A new broom has swept away some old favourites, but Mark Hughes was similarly ruthless in sidelining both John Pantsil and Zoltan Gera.

 

Bryan Ruiz looks ready to revel in the Premier League spotlight

The change of system offers an air of the unexpected. Bryan Ruiz seems a shy, sensitive type but he’s a ridiculously gifted footballer. Remember those effortless dinks over the goalkeeper against Everton and Bolton that produced gapsps of wonderment? He’s barely been fit during his year at the club and with a full pre-season behind him as well as operating in the classical number ten position behind Petric he looks like he’s ready to leave an indellible mark on English football. His free-kick against Wycombe the other week was magnificent and effortless at the same time.

Petric's potency and playmaking ability have perked up Fulham's forward line

Petric seems a canny replacement for Pogrebnyak, who we didn’t pay a transfer fee for either. He’s been there and done it right across Europe in a variety of positions but we knew he could find the goal spectacularly before he pulled on a Fulham shirt. He’s proved it with five in five. I thought his opener at Adams’ Park was special, until the overhead kick – eeirly reminscient of Zoltan Gera’s effort which finished off Manchester United a few years back – in Nice. Petric is more than a scorer of spectacular goals – he’s a playmaker too. Take a look at the sublime through ball that released Alex Kacaniklic for the second on the stroke of half time or the impudent backheel which Mahamadou Diarra lashed home after the break.

Diarra’s decision to make his stay at the Cottage permanent probably hastened the departures of both Murphy and Dickson Etuhu. The Malian has some CV and, even as he was returning to full match sharpness, he offered tantalising glimpses of his class towards the tail end of last season. Classy on the ball and strong in the tackle you could see why Real Madrid thought he might be able to take over from Claude Makele. If Diarra stays fit and can be paired alongside Mousa Dembele, then that’s a midfield partnership with the potential to leave the pundits purring.

But perhaps the most exciting element of Jol’s vision for Fulham is the emergence of the youngsters. Kerim Frei dazzled at Kingstonian when he wasn’t really much beyond second gear and he’s clearly been working on his strength and conditioning during the close season. Whilst everyone was raving about Frei’s impact last season, the Motspur Park talent developers were taking note of Alex Kacaniklic’s progress. The Swede has shown just why Malcolm Elias was so keen to bring him down south from Melwood and both his crossing and confident finish in France underscored his further progression since that impressive introduction to the first team after his loan spell at Watford last season.

Then there’s Mesca, the one Chelsea let go far too soon. The 19 year-old from Guinea-Bisseau scored two and made three more as he stepped up to reserve team level last season but he’s got all the attributes to follow Frei and Kacaniklic into the first team on a regular basis. Pace, trickery and confidence are there as is a cool head in front of goal. The joy that his goal, just two minutes after replacing Damien Duff in France, brought was contagious. It’s taken hold of this correspondent – and let’s hope the rest of the Fulham faithful are feeling as optimistic after three months of the real thing.

Fulham hit Nice for four

Fulham’s fine pre-season continued with a fabulous four goal win over Nice on the Côte d’Azur this evening. The Whites’ dominant display, which included a fifth summer strike in as many friendlies for the potent Mladen Petric, augurs well for when Martin Jol’s side begin their Premier League campaign against Norwich City in a fortnight’s time.

Jol selected a strong side and their fluidity of movement and ease on the ball troubled the Ligue 1 side who seemed sluggish by comparison. The trip to the Stade du Ray was considered a stern test, with Nice due to begin their domestic season next weekend, but Fulham made the running from the outset with speedy Swede Alex Kaciniklic posing problems out wide and Bryan Ruiz looking dangerous in the hole. The pair combined with just a minute on the clock but the Costa Rican’s instinctive shot flew over the crossbar. The hosts replied with a speculative shot from Guie Guie but another astonishing finish from Petric handed Fulham the lead their early adventure merited.

Mahamadou Diarra, back in France after his four succerssful years with Lyon, started a flowing midfield move that offered Kacaniklic space to gallop into. The Swede sent over a dangerous cross but Petric’s finish – an acrobatic overheaded effort – was sensational. Following hot on the heels of a fine curler at Wycombe last week, it offered another indication that the Croatian could be an inspired signing, although he probably wouldn’t have been allowed as much and space and time in the physical confines of the Premier League.

Nice did up the ante after falling behind. Promising teenager Thimothée Kolodziejczak extended Schwarzer for the first time in the evening and skipper Didier Digard should have levelled proceedings rather than sending a header wide. The former Middlesbrough man looked as though he had nodded home an equaliser, but his flicked header was cleared off the line by Sasha Riether.

Fulham coped well enough with Nice’s spell of pressure although  Schwarzer was almost embarassed by a long-ranger from Argentinian defender Fabián Monzón, but the Whites scored a crucial second just before the break. It came courtesy of Kacaniklic, who had always looked likely to exploit a square Nice back line with his pace, and the former Liverpool winger kept his composure brilliantly to double Fulham’s lead after sprinting onto a through ball from Petric.

Jol made his first changes midway through the second half, giving Kerim Frei just over half an hour to run at the French backline and offering Stephen Kelly some more match practice after his extended break following Euro 2012. The visitors were in total command and their superiority was reflected in the scoreline when Diarra lashed home a square pass from Petric twenty minutes after the interval. Mesca added a fourth a matter of moments after he replaced Damien Duff after a fine Frei through ball had disected the Nice defence to leave Claude Puel with plenty to ponder ahead of their opening league game against AC Ajaccio next Saturday night.

OGC NICE: Delle; Palun, Pejcinovic, Kolodziejczak; Coulibaly, Traore; Bautheac, Abriel, Monzon; Guie Guie.

FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Riether (Kelly 59), J.A. Riise, Hughes, Hangeland; Diarra (Baird 70), Dembele (Sidwell 70); Duff (Mesca 77), Kacaniklic (Frei 59), Ruiz (Davies 70); Petric. Subs (not used): Stockdale, Grygera, Briggs, Pritchard, Trotta.

GOALS: Petric (18), Kacaniklic (45), Diarra (64), Mesca (79).