Fulham discover overdue backbone as hope of survival rekindles
It looked like it. Very much so. At halftime on Tuesday night at Craven Cottage, Fulham looked dead and buried. In the league, probably. In this particular game, almost certainly. This was a team that has shown signs of being ridiculously soft, a team with the worst defence in the league. They were so meek that they managed to lose a game at Burnley despite taking the lead and their opponents not managing a single shot on target.
In their loss to West Ham in December, Premier League commentator Jon Champion quite rightly noted their soft-centre, and how the Premier League would keep swallowing them up. And here at home to Brighton, they were being gobbled up big time, a team who, once they concede, seems to fold almost immediately and look more likely to ship more than give a reply of their own; so, on past evidence, it was almost impossible to see them responding to Glenn Murray’s first half brace as the first 45 minutes reached its end.
Another nail in the coffin. Another hapless defeat as they stumbled back to the Championship whence they came, surely. This was a team that had no responses to going behind against the likes of Huddersfield, looked toothless at home to Crystal Palace, that shipped four at Cardiff and three at home to Bournemouth. This was the same side that had won just once in ten league games, were embarrassed out of the FA Cup by a team 59 places them a few weeks ago. A team wrestling with internal player strife. How on earth would they recover from such a deficit here? The answer; they wouldn’t, surely.
Well that answer was wrong, and not many would have seen what came next beforehand, or boldly predicted such. First, eight minutes after the break, Calum Chambers volleyed one back for the hosts, aided by Aleksandar Mitrovic, who himself bagged a brace, and by the 66th minute, a 2-0 deficit had become a 3-2 advantage for the Cottagers, in the space of 21 minutes they had gone from spineless and moribund to resilient and hopeful. There was still time for Luciano Vietto to add a fourth with 11 minutes left, to give them their own two-goal lead, one even a side with their defence previous this season wouldn’t toss.
Call it a cliché, but this is the sort of performance that can galvanise a team in such a position. Also, this is sort of performance Fulham should put in more often, particularly against teams like Brighton, particularly at home. Many a time have they failed to stand up and be counted when teams of similar stature came along, the tagged ‘winnable’ games went by with defeat. More than once have teams Fulham would supposedly expect to beat if they’re to prove they’re top-flight material beaten them.
And make no mistake, this game doesn’t change that. Neither the games in which they have failed miserably, nor the fact that they are still far off from safety will be overshadowed by this victory. Fulham are still second-bottom, six points from safety, still have the worst defence in the league – even their come-from-behind win against Southampton in Claudio Ranieri’s first game in charge in December saw them concede twice. The latter part still showed here, they still looked at sea at the back, especially in the first half, and they won’t always come back from two down, which probably wouldn’t have happened here as well had Murray not hit the post late in the first half. The backline still needs cohesion, leadership and stability, and whether those things will come in the second half of the season remains to be seen, but would be deemed unlikely based on evidence till date.
But that shouldn’t put a dampener on this game, the result and the show of resilience. For first time in a while, when Fulham were knocked down, they didn’t stick their heads in the sand and wait for the misery to be over, didn’t go through another 90 minutes of anguish. For the first in a while, Fulham fought back, which has always been the watchword of their Italian manager, and they’ll go into their next clash at fellow strugglers Crystal Palace with a fair amount of positivity. Whether this is a one-off or a sign of things to come, Fulham showed that they are willing to make a fist of it, and battle their way out of trouble.
For the first Matchweek since December, Manchester City played before Liverpool. This was a chance for the champions to put pressure on the leaders, and they began in the best way, taking the lead after 24 seconds. But that was the best they could muster, City boss Pep Guardiola in a state of unease on the bench as his side became passive, and eventually opponents Newcastle had their break, two goals in the final 25 minutes gave the Magpies a first league over City since 2005.
So, Liverpool began on Wednesday with the knowledge that a win would take them seven points clear at the top, and they began in sprightly, going ahead after two minutes. But that was as good as it got for Jurgen Klopp’s side, as they were pegged back by Leicester, and his rather nervy and edgy side had to settle for a point. The gap at the top is five points, one more than it was at the start of the week, yet it seems irrelevant. Which side would be kicking themselves more over this?
After eight wins in a row, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s rein at Old Trafford looked to be brought down to earth as Burnley took a two-goal lead at Old Trafford. But two late goals from the hosts rescued a point, and while the 100% record is over, there’s still very much a sense of encouragement around Manchester United.
When Bournemouth beat Chelsea in December 2015, it was hard to see if any result would top that for the Cherries. Then in January last year, they grabbed a 3-0 win over the Blues at Stamford Bridge. But those results have nothing on events at Vitality stadium this Wednesday, as the Cherries ran out 4-0 – that should be said again, FOUR-NIL – winners over Maurizio Sarri’s side.
Chelsea and United’s results mean the winners from the top six this midweek are just about Arsenal, the Gunners beating Cardiff to go into fourth place on goal difference.
It was the right end, at the right time, for Fernando Llorente and Spurs, as the Spaniard’s first league for over a year was a stoppage time winner against Watford, and Spurs close the gap at the top to seven points.
Fulham 4-2 Brighton
Liverpool 1-1 Leicester
Wolves 3-0 West Ham
Tottenham 2-1 Watford
Bournemouth 4-0 Chelsea
Huddersfield 0-1 Everton
Newcastle 2-1 Manchester City
Manchester United 2-2 Burnley
Southampton 1-1 Crystal Palace
Arsenal 2-1 Cardiff