Fulham playmaker Bryan Ruiz has set his sights on helping the club secure a top ten finish in the Premier League after Martin Jol’s side grabbed a vital three points with Saturday’s victory over Stoke.
The Costa Rican international, restored to his advanced attacking midfielder role behind goalscorer Dimitar Berbatov in yesterday’s 1-0 win over Tony Pulis’ side, hopes the latest win can be a springboard for a strong finish to what has been a stuttering season for the Craven Cottage club. Ruiz is confidently looking past the 40 point mark that Jol identified as his primary target in media interviews last week.
We had a difficult period where we had bad results but we were playing not so well. Now we are playing very good and getting the good results so hopefully we can finish the rest of the season playing good and getting the most points we can.
We did what we had to do on Saturday, won, got three points and are looking at the top 10. We knew it was going to be really hard. Playing against Stoke is always difficult, they are a really strong team and it was difficult but we got the very important three points.
We knew they’re a really difficult team on crosses, throw-ins and corners but we trained on that this week and I think it was good because we got a clean sheet and it is very important for the team.
With Fulham’s free-scoring summer fun now firmly in the past, the critics have been vocal in suggesting that Martin Jol’s selections and style of play are to blame for some fairly insipid displays. Those casting doubt on Fulham’s direction found Bryan Ruiz and Dimitar Berbatov culpable during Saturday’s turgid draw at Norwich – but for me that’s far too simplistic.
Berbatov is beginning to attract trenchant criticism from certain sections of the Fulham fans, especially for his habit of dropping deep when starved of service. It was this – and a perception that he tended to slow the pace of the game at times – that saw him frozen out at Old Trafford, but the Bulgarian’s only forced to roam in search of possession with the midfield failing to function as fluently as they did earlier in the season. There were signs that the robust Frimpong, who made his debut alongside the returning Steve Sidwell in the centre of the park, could add a little bit of bite to Fulham’s play at Norwich – and with a couple of weeks to work on things down at Motspur Park, there might be a bit more spark when Stoke come to the Cottage. Dropping Fulham’s best source of a goal would be madness.
Equally, jettisoning Fulham’s most creative player would hardly help enliven things going forward. Ruiz toiled manfully in a role that wasn’t suited to him on Saturday – operating out wide in a four man midfield, with little room for the freer role that allows him to escape the attentions of opponents. In a quiet afternoon only a couple of days after starring for Costa Rica against Panama in their latest World Cup qualifier, Ruiz still came the closest to scoring for Fulham – with a powerful strike that winded Sebastien Bassong after it struck the Canaries defender in the throat.
Injuries have disrupted Ruiz’s season so far but his contribution has been impressive. Sensational against Arsenal and Fulham’s most potent threat against the league leaders in our narrow home defeat just over a week ago, his contribution compares more than favourably with the league’s leading lights. In eighteen league appearances, Ruiz has laid on six goals – the tenth best provider in the Premier League – and all of those listed above him have considerably more minutes under their belt this season. Damien Duff, quietly having another excellent campaign, is joint third with seven assists.
Ruiz and Berbatov might sometimes seem like they are playing in slow motion – but the pair are more likely to be the solution to Fulham’s failure to find the net on a more regular basis rather than the problem. When the Costa Rican operates at the fulcrum of Fulham’s midfield, the Whites look far more threatening – and scapegoating the club’s most creative force simply won’t end our scoring woes.
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.
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).
Ironically, given Dimitar Berbatov’s choice of t-shirt on Boxing Day, calmness is in short supply among the Fulham faithful at the moment. Given the hysterical reaction to what was another ultimately disappointing display three days, you could have been forgiven for thinking Martin Jol’s side had been trounced by Southampton rather than actually picking up a point. I’ve long since given up posting on the various Fulham forums and messageboards and, due to a difficult pre-Christmas period of my own, haven’t been able to string sentences together here, either but, hours before what has again been billed as ‘must-win’ game by some sections of support, a sense of perspective is necessary.
There’s no denying that Fulham are on a dismal run. The Whites have won just one of their last eleven fixtures and haven’t kept a clean sheet since the short journey down the Fulham Road a month ago. The fluid, eye-catching football that set pulses racing in the early weeks of the football has been glimpsed briefly, but is fleeting rather than frequent. Jol’s adoption of a more attacking mind-set has left previously reliable defenders, like Brede Hangeland, alarmingly exposed – and injuries have ruptured the spine of what was a strong side. Without high quality understudies, any team will look weaker without Mahmadou Diarra, Damien Duff, Bryan Ruiz and Dimitar Berbatov.
But the problems aren’t insurmountable and Fulham’s plight is far from terminal. The Whites might have picked up one fewer point than at this stage last season, but there is a six-point gap between their current position and the relegation zone. This isn’t a situation reminiscent of when Lawrie Sanchez was sacked just before Christmas five years ago – or, in my view, comparable to when Mark Hughes’ team lingered above the drop zone, a little more recently. Jol’s side have played some scintillating football this season – think back to that afternoon at Arsenal six weeks ago – and can rediscover their joie de vivre.
Furthermore, managerial changes aren’t the way to achieve success. The three changes in management in over the last two seasons have seen a dizzying turnover in players, coaches and philosophies as well as scuppering any realistic chance of using that remarkable run to Hamburg as a springboard. Patience might have left the footballing lexicon of late, but those who exercise it are often rewarded. English football would look a lot different today had Manchester United’s board parted ways with Sir Alex Ferguson early in his reign – and, if Martin Jol should be looking anxiously over his shoulder after eighteen months at the Cottage, then it would imply that Roman’s Russian roulette wheel brand of stewardship is contagious.
The title of the piece comes from the phrase with which Micky Adams, who started Fulham’s climb from the abyss, used to finish his programme notes. It is as apt now as it was in the weeks after a feisty full-back stepped into Ian Branfoot’s shoes with the oldest club in London position perilously close to the Football League’s trap door. A more recent parallel would be when a lone voice at the back of the Hammersmith End implored his fellow Fulham fans to ‘stand up if you believe’ as Hamburg look likely to end that magical European run. I don’t need to remind anybody of what followed.
Watching Fulham can be frustrating but we’re lucky enough to be watching two real artisans, in Ruiz and Berbatov, in one of the most idyllic settings in the country. Not too long ago, Premier League football didn’t look like it was returning to Craven Cottage. When the new league broke away in 1992, the men in white coats would have ferried you away if you suggested it ever would. Jol has brought a classy Costa Rican and a brilliant Bulgarian to Fulham as well accelerating the development of Kerim Frei and Alex Kacaniklic through first-team football. His work’s obviously unfinished – so let’s keep calm and keep the faith.
If you know someone who’s falling out of love with football, you could do worse than take them down to Fulham over the festive period.
Those words weren’t uttered by me, but by an Arsenal fan strolling through Cannonbury Square last night trying to make sense of it all after another stupendous Saturday. I don’t like intruding on private grief, but this particular Gunner – who looked old enough to have seen a few decades of Arsenal sides – made it difficult as he delivered an assessment of the action down the phone line that was almost as breathless as the game itself. His reason for advocating a trip to Craven Cottage was simple – ‘with Berbatov and Ruiz in the side they’re very easy on the eye’.
It’s a sentiment that quickly being shared outside the places where you’d normally hear animated chatter about Fulham Football Club – although the memo hasn’t got to Salford yet, judging by the way Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer and Martin Keown gave the Cottagers’ comeback the most cursory of considerations on Match of the Day last night. I call it a comeback because, for all the platitudes about playing pretty good football in the first few minutes, the 2012 trip to the Emirates seemed to be following the history books with the Whites two down in 23 minutes.
Dismal defending is something the Ashburton Grove regulars have been discussing for a while, so it must have been a relief to find Fulham such accommodating visitors. Fortunately, for a feisty away end, the defensive errors weren’t confined to one end of the field. It still needed some artistry and appetite to explore Arsenal’s alarming vulnerability and there’s been a marked change in Jol’s approach away from home this season. Whereas during his transitional year, Fulham were still predictable on their travels, it is almost as if the big Dutchman has let the lads off the leash this term and a new team’s come alive.
The new-found potency (only Manchester United have mustered more goals than Jol’s team) is all the more remarkable given that the most reliable sources of goals [Zamora, Pogrebnyak, Dembele and Dempsey] all elected to ply their trade elsewhere this year. It also owes much to the two men who can’t have played an awful lot of football together. Everyone appreciates Dimitar Berbatov’s ability. Laconic rather than lazy, Berbatov ambles around the pitch at the pace of a testy teenager who’s just got out of bed. It’s not because Dimi’s disinterested; he’d just rather utilise his energy where it proves most effective. The Bulgarian had two efforts on target yesterday – a header that was so easy he barely celebrated it and a Paradinha-esque penalty – and sauntered down the right to create Alex Kacaniklic’s equaliser.
As brilliant as Berbatov was, he could only showcase the quality that entranced supporters of Spurs and Manchester United, because of the silky skills of Bryan Ruiz. The only thing the Costa Rican did wrong yesterday was to play a tired ball behind Sascha Riether in injury time. He’s been a scapegoat for some who can’t appreciate – or choose to ignore – the ground he covers to glide into dangerous positions and when Phil Dowd staggeringly decided to award that spot-kick, it seemed as though Ruiz’s detractors would have a field day. Fortunately, Mark Schwarzer superbly saved Mikel Arteta’s penalty – and dispassionate discussion of Ruiz’s contribution can be considered.
If he hadn’t already removed any lingering doubt at Reading a fortnight ago, then this display should have any remaining Ruiz knockers ordering a hefty slice of humble pie. He floated in the corner for Fulham’s first goal and arguably outshone Santi Carzola in a terrific tussle between two classical number tens, who scurry intelligently into space in search of the ball. There’s an added tenacity to Ruiz’s game now, best epitomised not in the way that he robbed Arteta in his own box, but by the regularity with which he ventured back past the half way to fight for possession.
The partnership between the pair of the time is still a work in progress, but you can see why Jol’s so keen to play the two of them together. Both drift all over the place – Berbatov playing a lot deeper than a conventional centre forward and Ruiz roaming from a free role behind him. At a time when there’s so much negativity surrounding our national game, appreciating the beautiful football of Fulham’s two artisans is a real pleasure. You get the feeling that the entertainment’s only just started too.