First, we must doff our woolly hats to one of the better team performances witnessed at Craven Cottage in recent times. Everton have long felt like a pretty good team waiting to be, and now they have arrived, a complete team in all but a couple of areas. Fulham couldn’t get near them for most of the game, and the final score was almost laughable in its inappropriateness: 2-2? How do you work that one out?
The first half was the more uneven of the two, Everton’s dominance being near-complete. There was only one goal in the half, Bryan Ruiz curling a free-kick onto the post and into the net via an inelegant Tim Howard. It went down as a Howard o.g., which seems a little harsh on Ruiz, whose free-kick was more or less perfect. I don’t suppose Howard particularly wants the goal either so I don’t know why it can’t just be given to Ruiz. In any case, this must now be the end of John Arne Riise’s silly “let’s blast the ball as hard as we can and see where it goes” free-kick routine, which is as futile as it is frustrating.
So that was that, Fulham one up against the run of play. Everton just kept the ball, and whenever a Fulham player did happen upon possession it was soon surrendered, either by sloppy pass, hopeful long punt, or some combination of the two. We had to hope that Everton would tire in the second half, but it wasn’t really about physicality or pressing so much as good organisation and an uncanny ability to be where Fulham didn’t want them to be. I remember watching a football match with my grandmother, Dad’s mum, years ago. It would’ve been a Sunday afternoon (that’s when games were on TV then) and I remember that Manchester United were playing because goalkeeper Chris Turner was having a blinder (this dates the memory to between 1985 and 1988). Granny enjoyed Turner’s performance and commented that he was doing very well in goal for such a short man. She also noted that it didn’t seem that the game really was 11 v 11, as whichever team it was that was dominating (probably not United given the time frame – this was Ron Atkinson’s team) seemed to have many more players. Well this is how today’s match felt: Fulham seemed to be at least a man short.
Interestingly, Martin Jol commented that Fulham should have made more of the space they had in midfield, which isn’t how it felt at the game. True, Everton’s setup was very bold, with four attacking players and two very adventurous full-backs, but it really didn’t feel as if there was space to be worked in. We had nowhere to go, which often is the way when you’re camped in your own half.
Where, then? Certainly Ruiz and Berbatov weren’t going to kill Everton over the top, and our full-backs were being pinned back by Everton’s relentless work down either flank. This was splendid to see, actually, lots of switching of positions and possession, a bit like how Roy’s teams used to work when on song, only a bit more attacking and with better players. I suppose technically in Kacaniklic and Duff we had the wide men to take advantage of this aggressive approach work on the counter but it never did come to much.
The second half was a bit better in so far as we had the odd attack, but we were undone by Marouane Fellaini, twice. The first was the very goal you’d have predicted based on the first half, a bit of neat approach play, a low cross and a thumping finish by an onrushing forward. The second was a bit of a mess: Everton, who don’t deserve Liverpool’s criticism for being a long-ball team, nevertheless are not stupid, and spent some time lumping balls at Fellaini to see what he might come up with. When he attached himself to Sascha Reither this looked particularly unfair, and here he was taking a ball down, tricking or bundling or something his way past Aaron Hughes and before we knew it the ball had been larruped past Mark Schwarzer for a deserved but dispiriting second.
Now then. Jol made a few tricksy subs: Riise and Diarra were both withdrawn, and I don’t know if either were hurt, but this saw Baird and Duff spending time at left back. Dejagah and Sidwell and then Petric were introduced, bold moves from a manager not about to give up on a home point. Berbatov brought a smart save from Tim Howard at the near post but honestly Fulham didn’t feel much nearer to getting anything out of the game. Everton hit the post, too.
I can’t tell you what happened next. Hade and Stanley were in the playground in Bishop’s Park so I thought I’d get a march on the crowds and find them so we could wander back to the car. It didn’t feel like we had a goal in us and Everton’s mastery of the game was annoying me. Silly, of course, as there are always late goals in football these days. I was about halfway to the playground when the stadium lit up with noise. An agonising pause – because I was behind the Putney End it was impossible to tell who’d scored from the chears – then came Diddy Hamilton’s belated announcement: “Fulham goalscorer, number 7, Steeeve, Sidwell!”. Blimey, who’d have thought?
A post-mortem of today’s game probably doesn’t get us very far. Everton were excellent and we weren’t, yet we were able to stay close enough to snatch that point. It was the sort of game that Dimitar Berbatov will think about over his evening meal – “have I done the right thing? my teammates were a bit iffy today” – but we must hope that he’s enjoying things enough to overlook the odd mishap like today. Not much went right for him on the pitch, and he and Ruiz showed that for every Reading extravaganza there will be games where they both might have been more use sitting in the Cottage playing Sudoku (Berbatov would be the better player, I assume, and probably even stronger at chess). Certainly it felt like some Rodallega pace over the top might have been more threatening today.
For all that, the game was not without bright points. Chris Baird again showed that in some ways he’s our best player, reading the situations very nicely and making some timely interruptions to Everton attacks. Mark Schwarzer did well given recent troubles, and our defence more or less coped with one of the league’s best set piece teams. Ruiz showed that for all his frustrating attributes he has match changing capabilities, and Steve Sidwell reminded us that he has a reasonable nose for goal. He probably should have been brought on sooner, too.
We won’t struggle like that again for a while and in some ways the team will feel quite good about things this evening.