Sunday, August 24, 2008

Fulham 1 Arsenal 0

First home game of the new season. Like going back to school. Checking out old haunts, seeing familiar faces.

First stop the River Cafe, straight opposite Putney Bridge station. A great place for pre-match gossip. The gossip whets your appetite for the game at the same time as the pie and two veg satisfies the inner man. The gossip doesn't have to be true, it just has to be interesting.

There are a couple of fellas, father and son who I often see in there before home games. Here is how our conversation went:

The father: I don't rate Roy Hodgson
Me (suprised): He did an amazing job last season, I don't think Jose Mourinho could have kept the dross Sanchez left us with in the premier league
Father: It wasn't Hodgson. He'd lost it, he was crying after we lost to Sunderland. For the last three games Murphy and McBride took over the dressing room. At half time in the Man City game Danny Murphy gave the team talk. I've heard it from within the club. He told them they were going down that afternoon if they didn't pull their finger out. Thats why when Kamara got the winner he ran straight over to Murphy. And that is why Murphy is captain now.

At the ground we have moved seats. Not by far, up a bit and along a bit, block CL to block B, but we have crossed the great divide from Johnny Haynes lower to Johnny Haynes upper. Johnny Haynes lower was the old enclosure terrace, it has a shallow slope, and the new seats were put over the terracing four years ago. Johnny Haynes upper is much steeper, you get a great perspective on the game. The wooden seats are the original ones that were put in when the stand was built in 1905, and are the oldest in the premier league. My son admired the way these seats don't flip back when you stand up, they just stay there. I guess they wouldn't have lasted 103 years if they flipped up every time a Fulham fan stood up in anger (or joy).

Last season Arsenal came and wove pretty patterns all around Fulham. The game was over after half an hour, Adebayor had risen twice around the penalty spot to crack two identikit headers into the lower bottom corner, both after twenty seven pass moves.

Arsenal's midfield four that day were Hleb, Fabergas, Flamini and Rossicky. Two of them left over the summer, the other two of them were injured so this time they had to play Walcott, Denilson, Eboue and Nasri. No comparison. Walcott is still a kid. Nasri has only played one premiership game. Denilson isn't the finished article and Dave (a colleague with an Arsenal season ticket) describes Eboue as 'a traffic cone of a player who can't pass properly'. It was a good day to play them.

Before the game I wondered if Fulham would go back to five in midfield, as most teams do against top four sides. In last week's defeat against Hull reports said that we were outmuscled in midfield, and that Bullard and Murphy in the middle weren't able to offer any protection for the defence. But no, Hodgson stuck to his guns, we played 4-4-2 same as they did.

Fulham started well, with some nice interpassing.

Early on Van Persie missed a good chance (I missed it too, my son needed a wee). On our way back we stood at the top of the stairs to see a Fulham corner which someone bundled in. After the match a TV replay showed that it was all 6 foot five of Brede Hangeland, flying at the ball feet first like Eric Cantona flew into that Palace fan all those years back.

Adebayor, just like last season, rose at the penalty spot and got power and direction into a header, but this time it came back of the post.

Arsenal's big players drifted in and out of the game, there were twenty minute periods when I forgot Nasri was playing, forgot Adebayor was playing, forgot Walcott was playing. It was Walcott that the Arsenal fans I spoke to afterwards were most disappointed with- he was up against debutant Fulham left back Tony Kallio who was standing in for Paul Konchesky, but Walcott didn't seem to want to test Kallio out.

When Wenger brought a third striker on, Nicholas Bendtner, with twenty minutes left Robin Van Persie looked around at his team mates and shrugged his shoulders, wondering where he was going to play. A sign that all wasn't well (they stuck him out on the right side of midfield).

Fulham retained a good share of possession until the last ten minutes, when it became backs to the wall time.

Murphy, as well as his usual precision passing, was a tiger in midfield, making lots of key challenges and interceptions. Bullard seemed to play a more disciplined game than at times last season, not straying too far, and hardly misplacing a pass all day.

Zamora did a great job in his home debut as centre-forward playing with his back to goal, staying central, holding the ball up, bringing the midfield into it. Soeul Ki-Hyun drifted off him and had a decent game, he got a nice ovation at the end which will help him: he was a Sanchez signing and the crowd have got at him, which is hard on someone like him who needs confidence to play. True neither Soeul or Zamora looked like scoring on their own account, but once Andy Johnson's pace and finishing power are added to Zamora's hold up play we will have a side worth watching.

At the end the Fulham players all stood in the centre circle and waved at the crowd, and pointed bemused at our new full back John Pantsil, who was sprinting round the touchline, as fresh as a daisy, a solo high speed lap of honour to milk the applause.

Hodgson has been with Fulham for eight months now, and the club have got better every month. Whether it is him or Danny Murphy, someone is doing a good job.

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