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Schwarzer makes his point

Had Arsene Wenger agreed to part with a bit more cash two summers ago, Mark Schwarzer might have been guarding the other goal at the Emirates Stadium this afternoon. Arsenal baulked at Fulham’s valuation of their Australian goalkeeper, but Wenger might be ruing his miserly manner this evening after Schwarzer – now very much a veteran – sprung to his right to superbly save a stoppage-time spot-kick from Mikel Arteta and prevent the Gunners from pinching all three points at the end of a pulsating London derby.

The 40 year-old was as enraged as his team-mates at referee Phil Dowd’s decision to award a penalty in the final minute of added time after Andrei Arshavin’s cross struck Sascha Riether on his arm, but produced the best possible response – pushing away Arteta’s penalty – and proving his own point as well as preserving Fulham’s. Martin Jol’s side looked dead and buried after Oliver Giroud and Lukas Podolski had put the hosts two up inside 23 minutes, but Arsenal’s inability to hold onto a lead had cost them in Germany and that familiar frailty resurfaced here.

A resurgent Fulham, buoyed by the easiest header Dimitar Berbatov will score all season, were posing problems for the brittle Gunners’ back four long before the Bulgarian turned provider for substitute Alex Kacaniklic five minutes before half time and it came as little surprise when the ex-Spurs striker sent Vito Mannone the wrong way from the spot to give Fulham the lead midway through the second half after Mikel Arteta had hauled down the excellent Bryan Ruiz. That the visitors couldn’t cling on came as little surprise – Jol’s side have lost the most points from winning positions in the Premier League – and Giroud’s looping header after his drive came back off the far post set up the kind of frenzied finale that seems standard for Fulham on their travels this season.

That the Whites could even claim a legitimate share of the spoils owed much to their belief in the attacking arsenal Jol has assembled. They needed Berbatov’s bewitching brilliance – and his burgeoning link-up play with Ruiz – after failing to deal with Arsenal’s fast start. French striker Giroud nodded home Arsenal’s first headed league goal of the campaign having glided away from Aaron Hughes to meet Theo Walcott’s corner on 11 minutes. Leaving the former Montepellier forward unmarked was careless, but the defending for Arsenal’s second seemed more suited to the Paramount Channel than the Premier League. John Arne Riise fluffed a chance to clear and Podolski was afforded the freedom of Islington to end an eight game scoreless streak at the far post.

Jol’s side play far more football than Fulham used to away from Craven Cottage and Berbatov’s simple header from a Ruiz corner saw the belief return. The man who Jol prized away from Old Trafford for just £4m floated around the pitch with the simple serenity of someone spending a Saturday in a London park, but he sped away from Thomas Vermaelen to float over a cross that Kacaniklic, on earlier than expected after Kieran Richardson’s afternoon was curtailed by injury, headed home emphatically. Ruiz, who has quickly become Fulham’s creative hub, showed his steelier side to rob Arteta, who might agonise  after this afternoon for years to come, and win the penalty that put the visitors in front.

Jol had hoped to field Mahamadou Diarra but the Malian missed out after failing a fitness test and his replacement Steve Sidwell was fortunate to stay on the field for a full ninety minutes against his first club. Booked in the first half for a mistimed lunge, Sidwell wasn’t shown a second yellow for bringing down Santi Carziola in full flight just before Phil Dowd pointed to the spot at the other end of the field. Fulham’s improbable comeback was punctured before anyone had time to take in the enormity of the turnaround, when Giroud’s low shot came back off the far post and the Frenchman was alert enough to flick Walcott’s cross over the recovering Schwarzer.

The final twenty minutes went from end to end. Schwarzer produced a sprawling stop to deny Giroud a hat-trick, whilst only a superbly timed saving tackle from Laurent Koscielny prevented Berbatov from pouncing a fine ball from Ashkan Dejagah, who lived up to the promise of his earlier cameos on his first start for Fulham. Arsenal badly wanted all three points to recover from a week that had already seen them squander a two-goal and but for Schwarzer’s superb stoppage-time heroics they would have had them. That, though, would have been harsh on Jol’s side, who are certainly easy on the eye if not the heart.

ARSENAL (4-2-3-1): Mannone; Sagna, Vermaelen, Koscielny, Mertesacker; Coquelin (Ramsey 56), Arteta; Podolski (Oxlade-Chamberlain 76), Walcott (Arshavin 85), Carzola; Giroud. Subs (not used): Szczensy, Jenkinson, Santos, Chamakh.

BOOKED: Ramsey.

GOALS: Giroud (11, 69), Podolski (23).

FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Riether, J.A. Riise, Hughes, Hangeland; Baird, Sidwell; Dejagah (Duff 85), Richardson (Kacaniklic 23), Ruiz; Berbatov. Subs (not used): Stockdale, Senderos, Karagounis, Rodallega, Petric.

BOOKED: Sidwell, Baird.

GOALS: Berbatov (29, pen 67), Kacaniklic (40).

REFEREE: Phil Dowd (Stoke-on-Trent).


Berbatov plans to play until he’s 40

Dimitar Berbatov plans to follow in the footsteps of team-mate Mark Schwarzer and play on until he’s 40 – although he’s not sure whether he’ll finish his career at Fulham.

The Bulgarian striker, who has made an instant impact at Craven Cottage since arriving from Manchester United at the end of August, says he enjoys English football and, as his game has never been based around blistering pace or acceleration, might be able to extend his playing career for another nine years.

I’m not a keeper, Ryan Giggs or Paolo Maldini, but I want to play until I am 40. I want to play in England for several more years. I like England as a place. I like the mentality, culture and its football.

Berbatov is insistent, however, that he won’t go back on his decision to retire from international football, a choice he made back in 2010.

I’m standing by the decision I made more than two years ago. My time has passed.

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.

Flawless Fulham canter past the Canaries

Damien Duff slides Fulham's first goal past John Ruddy at the Putney End

Poor old Norwich City. Every time they travel to Craven Cottage they seem to relive the same nightmare. They came with genuine hope of pulling off the impossible back in 2005 with a win on the final day of the season the only way they could prolong their all too brief stay in the top flight under Nigel Worthington. Fulham, with lean, mean Brian McBride playing party pooper, dispatched their with such disdain it was almost cruel and unusual. It was much closer in March when Paul Lambert’s side looked well beaten after two early strikes from Clint Dempsey and Damien Duff, but threatened to pinch a point after Aaron Wilbraham’s spirited riposte with thirteen minutes to play.

On another roasting summer’s afternoon alongside the Thames, there was clear water between these two sides by half time. Fulham, with just one defeat in a pre-season campaign that was all about finessing Martin Jol’s revamp of the club’s footballing philosophy, had the game settled by half time. There was no American to torment the Canaries, with McBride limited to cameos for Wembley FC, and Dempsey persona non grata after attempting to force through away from the Cottage in the wake of a truly astonishing twelve months of football.

On the flanks were one evergreen Irishman in Damien Duff, who opened the scoring with a sumptuous finish after sprinting onto a raking crossfield ball from John Arne Riise which Mark Tiereney decided to admire along with the rest of the Riverside Stand, and Fulham’s newest international in Alex Kacaniklic, who underscored the potential he showed as a Melwood junior, with his first senior Premier League goal only three days after coming off the bench for his Swedish debut against Brazil. Fulham’s four summer additions all featured with Mladen Petric grabbing a couple on his Premier League debut, Sascha Riether raiding forward from right back, Hugo Rodallega winning a penalty from the bench and Mahamadou Diarra, who made his short-term switch permanent over the close season, delivering the kind of imperious display that convinced Real Madrid to make him their big-money replacement for Claude Makelele. In these times when we’re asked to make every penny count, the fact that Martin Jol has yet to spent any of Mohamed Al Fayed’s millions and has strengthened considerably since last season’s surge in the final furlong is commendable.

Not that Chris Hughton enjoyed his chastening reintroduction to life as a top flight manager. The Canaries hadn’t looked particularly porous during a tight opening 25 minutes, limiting Fulham’s flowing one-touch football to a few snapshots from distance until the end of the first quarter. Bryan Ruiz, playing in the inside forward role that was Johnny Haynes’ for a decade, buzzed around with a frenetic energy that has only intensified during his first full pre-season in England.

The Costa Rican might have opened the scoring with an impudent chip over John Ruddy after the England keeper had mishit a clearance but the man handed his international opportunity by Roy Hodgson in Bern was equal to efforts from Riise and Ruiz from the edge of the box. He might have felt he should have prevented Duff’s dinked finish from rolling in off the far post having seen the ball spin away off his right foot, but any opprobrium should be saved for the way his back four allowed Riise’s sixty yard diagonal pass afford Duff a sprint through on goal. The thirty-three year-old has now scored in thirteen top flight campaigns since 1997-98, a record only bettered by Robbie Keane, Alan Shearer, Gary Speed, Andrew Cole, Ryan Giggs and his compatriot Robbie Keane.

Petric, who needed no introduction to the Fulham faithful after his fierce free-kick at the Hammersmith End threatened to ruin Fulham’s big night in the Europa League three years ago, continued his clinical conversion rate with a glancing header from a Duff corner three minutes before the break. There was no need for the goal-line technology even Sepp Blatter’s so keen on, assistant referee Charles Breakspear’s alertness swiftly informing  Michael Oliver that Jonny Howson’s attempt to clear before his own crossbar took place inside the net.

Hughton was pair enough to pair Steve Morison, who might have moved from Millwall to Craven Cottage rather than Carrow Road in the January window a couple of years, with the isolated Grant Holt for the second period but his back four failed to heed his half-time words about the need to regain their discipline. The Canaries allowed Ruiz and Petric far too much room to operate in 25 yards from goal and were punished courtesy of the former Hamburg forward’s left foot, with Ruddy a spectator after the ball spun off Michael Turner into the opposite corner.

Norwich’s rearguard were left looking even more leaden footed by a move straight off the Motspur Park training board. Another of Moussa Dembele’s mesmorising dribbles created the space for a lovely triangle between Ruiz, Petric and Kacaniklic. The Croatian’s cute backheel gave the Swede the chance to skip away from a horribly square defence and steer a low shot beyond the helpless Ruddy – which was a fitting reward for Kacaniklic’s energetic display. A fifth arrived from the penalty spot after Turner needlessly felled Hugo Rodallega after Norwich tried to play their way out of trouble from the edge of their own box and the spot-kick was comprehensively converted by Steve Sidwell, who took out twelve months of injury frustration on the ball, a few minutes after arriving as a substitute.

Mark Schwarzer was a virtual spectator for much of the contest called upon to make only two saves, although his late stop from Bradley Johnson’s dipping drive was worthy of the clean sheet that took him above David Seaman into second place on the Premier League’s all-time tally behind only David James. Craven Cottage, soon to be expanded to a 30,000 capacity, can’t have seen many better starts to a season than this. Delia Smith and Chris Hughton will be glad it’ll be at least twelve months since they have to return for a league fixture.

FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Riether, J.A. Riise, Hughes, Hangeland; Diarra, Dembélé; Duff (Kasami 74), Kacaniklic, Ruiz (Sidwell 81); Petri?  (Rodallega 68). Subs (not used): Stockdale, Kelly, Halliche, Baird.

GOALS: Duff (26), Petric (41, 54), Kacaniklic (66), Sidwell (pen 87).

NORWICH CITY (4-5-1): Ruddy, R. Martin, Turner, R. Bennett, Tierney; B. Johnson, Howson, Surman (Morison 45), Pilkington, Snodgrass (E. Bennett 56); Holt (Hoolahan 77). Subs (not used): Rudd, Barnett, Lappin, Vaughan.

REFEREE: Michael Oliver (Northumberland).


Schwarzer shares secrets of his success

There’s an interesting profile of Mark Schwarzer from SBS as the Fulham goalkeeper edges closer to his hundredth cap for Australia.

Fitness permitting, Schwarzer should reach the international landmark after a friendly against Scotland at Easter Road in August and the Socceroos’ latest World Cup qualifier in Jordan the following month. Should Australia make it all the way to Brazil in 2014, Schwarzer will replace legendary Italian custodian Dino Zoff as the oldest goalkeeper to play in a World Cup finals.

Reflecting on a twenty-year career, which was celebrated when he was named Australia’s best ever goalkeeper at a Sydney ceremony last week, Schwarzer suggested that nutrition and a strict fitness regime have helped him maintain his consistently high performance levels well into his late thirties.

It’s all to do with the way you look after yourself, the way you train and live your life. I’ve also been fortunate with injuries over the years but by the same token I do a lot of work to prevent injuries. I also do a lot of good old hard work because I still have the desire to keep on playing as long as possible at the highest level.

It’s not difficult at all to keep my motivation going. For me if I find it difficult to get motivated to get up and go to football every day then I would definitely consider retiring. I still get very excited about playing games and going to training. I like training because I enjoy working out to keep fit. And I’m doing that then it makes it easy.

The 39 year-old admitted that he could never have envisaged embarking on a professional career with such longevity when he was sitting on the Australian bench waiting for a chance to make his international debut, which came abruptly when former number one Robert Zabica was sent off against Canada in 1993.

Not in my wildest dreams did I ever believe that I would be playing almost 20 years later and nudging 100 caps for my country. I don’t suppose anyone would imagine playing for that long. I think these things evolve as times goes by. A lot of things have to fall in your favour along the way and you need a lot of hard work and dedication.

You get a lot of ups and downs in your career and there are a lot of factors that dictate if you play that long or get that many caps. So I feel very privileged to have reached this stage of my career and I’m enjoying every moment of it. The last two years have been the most enjoyable in my life in football terms.

Schwarzer’s German heritage also meant that his goalkeeping heroes as a child were largely European ‘like Harald Schumacher to a degree and particularly Jean-Marie Pfaff and later Bodo Illgner’. As a consummate professional, it is no surprise that Schwarzer feels footballers should act as ambassadors for the game and to the children who dream of emulating them.

Behaviour is definitely an aspect of one’s career. But you get that (mix) in all walks of life. There are those who believe that they should act responsibly on and off the pitch while others choose to live their own lifestyle.

But it is true that there are always repercussions to your actions. As far as I’m concerned I’ve always set a standard that I’ve tried to follow on and off the field. And when you become a father it becomes even more important to you because you want to lead by example.

The article concludes with Schwarzer looking ahead towards Brazil – insisting that representing Australia in the World Cup ‘is a very realistic target but beyond that is too far for me’. Whether Martin Jol makes a change in the Fulham goal before then, given the promising performances of David Stockdale in recent seasons, will be another big decision for the Dutch coach.