Despite a first half performance which looked more organised and hard working than any previous game this season, an understrength Ch*ls** team still proved too good for us over the full 90 minutes.
Moritz Volz made a welcome return to the starting eleven due to the suspension of Hameur Bouazza. Simon Davies was switched to the left wing where, as had been seen under Sanchez, he was far less effective whilst Volzy played on the right. Volz looked comfortable on the ball and made a couple of decent surging runs forward, he also combined excellently with Junior Omosuzi, who continued at right back, often double teaming Joe Cole and effectively neutralising any threat from that flank. It was a Volz run that led to our goal, the German bursting into the box before being brought down by Joe Cole.
Danny Murphy comfortably dispatched the penalty sending Hilario the wrong way. 1-0 up after 10 minutes and we all knew that wouldn't be the end of the story. Ch*ls** found a way through our defence a number of times, using long balls to exposing our lack of pace. Kalou had an early chance grasped by Niemi, and Shaun Wright Phillips raced past Konchesky (not for the last time) only to fire his shot across the face of goal but wide of the target. These were warning signs of what was to come. Murphy had an excellent first half. Both he and, the much maligned, Steven Davis harried and closed down opposing midfielders whilst Murphy found a number of searching passes as Fulham strove to find the second goal they knew they would need.
The second half saw the ineffective Steve Sidwell replaced by John Obi Mikel, a substitution that (as Rich identified on CCN) was to change the shape of the game. Essien previously playing the holding role in midfield was now freed up to push forward and alongside Michael Ballack take control of the game. We were now much more on the back foot and seemed unable to either win the ball back or retain it. A familiar story. Stefanovic, captain again, appeared lucky to get away with a handball as a cross from the bye line struck his outstretched hand and deflected behind. Referee Halsey awarded a corner despite loud complaints from the Putney End. The equaliser was not long in coming, a later corner evaded Stefanovic and Brazilian defender Alex muscled out Bocanegra at the far post to head back across goal where Kalou, who had left Volz trailing in his wake, was on hand to nod home.
Fulham were conceding more and more free kicks and it was from one of these that Ch*ls** took the lead a mere 8 minutes after their equaliser. A crowd of blue and white shirts rushed towards the oncoming ball, and seemingly a Dempsey tug on Ballack was enough to send him crashing to the ground. It was hard to judge from the Hammersmith End, but contact must have been minimal. This time Mark Halsey didn't disappoint the away support and a penalty was awarded. Ballack recovering his composure to finish in a remarkably similar fashion to Murphy. A visibly tiring Volz was replaced by Seol - not the most popular of introductions but at least it allowed Simon Davies to return to the right hand side - Davis was replaced by Smertin and not long after Kamara was replaced by Healy.
We huffed and puffed but really there was little left in this game. Healy managed an early snap shot from distance which was close, but not close enough. Seol went on a run down the left, felt the ground tremble as Essien closed on him rapidly, somehow managed to side step the imposing Ghanaian, before sending a hopeless cross over the head of Healy at the far post. It was a performance indicative of our season so far. Not enough players performing well enough at the same time, and hardly anyone capable of maintaining their performance for the full 90 minutes.
Omosuzi had probably his best game in a white shirt and was my man of the match. Both Murphy and Volz shone brightly in the first half but faded badly in the second. Both Dempsey and Davies (both contenders for player of the season so far) had off days and Konchesky, Kamara and Seol were all shocking. At least we showed a bit of fight, I actually enjoyed the game, and there were signs of the first steps being taken in the right direction. However, we need to gain something approaching 25 points from our remaining 17 matches if we're not going to rely on others to fail. I think that's going too be very difficult indeed.