Three losses in eight days is the sort of form to test even the most optimistic of supporters. The 1-0 defeat at Blackburn Rovers was disappointing, losing to Burnley midweek was even harder to take. This game therefore took on greater importance than it might have otherwise done. An opportunity to show it had been worthwhile resting so many first choice players in the Carling Cup. An opportunity we blew against a West Ham who, though they should be applauded for taking their chances, rarely looked capable of beating us.
In fact we beat ourselves. A period of madness in the last 5 or 6 minutes of the first half saw us concede two poor goals and have Andy Johnson sent off. Game Over and still 45 minutes to play. In a fiery opening half hour, Fulham were unusually reckless in their challenges with three other players finding their way into the referee's book along with Johnson. It was Johnson though that defined what went wrong in the game. Having made a poor pass that fell well short of it's intended recipient, he dived in much too high on West Ham left back Ilunga, making no contact with the ball. It was a shocking challenge that on second viewing was worthy of a straight red. To make matters worse, as the clock ticked down towards half-time, Johnson made another unnecessary lunge across Lucas Neil to get an equally deserved second yellow and effectively ended any chance we had of salvaging the game. This had followed our concession of two goals in which we conspired to do so many things wrong it was difficult to lay the blame on any one individual.
On 43 minutes Carlton Cole out muscled Brede Hangeland to push the ball out wide to Matthew Etherington. This left the Norwegian horribly out of position and struggling to get back to defend. Etherington left Konchesky cold as he out paced him down the wing then cut inside where Hughes was attempting to cover for the still absent Hangeland. A poor cross come shot was fired across Schwarzer who could only palm it out to the feet of Cole, the striker gleefully accepting the gift and firing home under little pressure as Paintsil looked on. Fulham had probably just edged the game up to that point but the goal gave West Ham new impetuous. Within two minutes they caught us with a sucker punch, a long ball from Mark Noble had our defence back peddling and Paintsil was caught out again as Etherington surge passed him. Schwarzer came rushing out of his goal only to see Etherington clip a shot around his out-stretched arm and nestle in the back of the net. We'd just imploded for no obvious reason.
As the second half got under way it seemed a forgone conclusion that we'd already lost the game. Incredibly though, we played really well and were comfortably the better team despite the numerical disadvantage. This was the Fulham we'd seen against Arsenal, working hard, passing quickly and controlling the match. A clear handball from Lucas Neil led to a penalty which Danny Murphy duly dispatched on the hour mark and suddenly it seemed like we might still get something. We certainly had our chances but nothing went in. Would we have stood any better with AJ still on the pitch? Hard to say, maybe the work rate wouldn't have been quite so high, but you have to think it would have helped. For the second Premier League game in a row Roy decided against making any subs. I briefly glanced at TiFF to see the usual outrage at this, but felt at the time he was right to stick by the 10 on the field. I didn't think they were noticeably running out of legs and I didn't think we had anyone on the bench who could have swung the game our way.
It's been a disappointing week no doubt, yet somehow I feel fairly upbeat about our situation. We do appear to becoming more and more like a mini-Arsenal. We're playing some neat football that I can really enjoy but we've got a soft underbelly that can leave us exposed if we're not focused 100%. The second half was exciting to watch, it flew past very quickly (inevitable when you're losing the game) but there was always the chance of an equalising goal. Had that arrived I think we'd have celebrated it like a win, in the end we didn't manage it but there was promise in the way we tried. Keep believing and the results will come, no one ever said this was going to be easy!
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