Fulham 0-3 Spurs

Goals change games, don’t they? Take the three goals away and you might call it an evenish contest. But of course you can’t take the three goals away, much as you might like to.

What a farce they all were. Sandro, dawdling just inside his own half, decides to have a dig. You’d say it was an insult to Mark Schwarzer, except the shot went in, swerving nastily and hopping over his hands. But even so. If David Stockdale had let that in it’d be proof that he’s not ready. I don’t know what it says about Schwarzer but I suspect there’s a reason you don’t see that many goalkeepers keep playing towards 40 odd. It feels a bit wrong criticising Schwarzer, as good a goalkeeper as Fulham will ever have, but this is part of the problem with playing a player to such an advanced age. When is a mistake just a mistake? When is it a sign of fading powers?

Bad became worse when Sigurdsson thoroughly fooled Philippe Senderos on the edge of the area and teed up Defoe for the sort of chance he lives on. Then Dempsey threaded a ball through our zig-zagged offside trap, Senderos again found himself partly playing offside, partly trying to intercept the ball, and of course he did neither and Spurs had a third. You could see the frustration in the big defender, and I felt for him: he hasn’t deserved the negativity his play sometimes attracts, but when he does make a mistake it’s proof that the naysayers were right all along.  When you look at his Fulham career he has generally done well, and our results haven’t been any worse with him than without him, but once people make up their minds… in any case, he had a bit of a disaster today. 

Other things: Gareth Bale annoyed me. After throwing himself over a tackle he got a yellow card. He then sarcastically clapped the referee. Certainly it would be harsh to send someone off for two consecutive minor misdemeanors, but if taking the piss out of the referee isn’t a bookable offence I’m a dutchman. Bale’s not nearly as good as he thinks he is and today did a very good impression of an arrogant prick.

Clint Dempsey had a quiet game and got a bit of stick from the crowd. He might have scored a couple of times but it didn’t quite happen for him, just as it never quite happened for him while he was at Fulham when he didn’t crash the area. Spurs seem to be using him as a second striker but he never got into the dangerous areas he needs to get into. The other former Fulham player, Mousa Dembele, had an understated but excellent game.

It’s hard to judge the Fulham effort because of the scoreline. Without those three mistakes we were more or less at the races in a tight and fitfully absorbing game. With that in mind perhaps you have to give some credit to the players, except… why were we playing so many long balls? What did we hope to achieve? It was enfuriating.  We either won the header, in which case Spurs got the second ball, or we didn’t, and Spurs get the ball anyway. Why so many aimless hoofs? Nobody wanted the ball at the back because Spurs pressed quite well, but something was missing. Ruiz, mainly, but the team seemed to lack a bit of cohesion, partly because of Spurs’ smothering defensive work, but it felt like more than that.

Petric, for instance – a player I like a lot – seems to need a bit more approach work around him, otherwise he looks far too isolated. Berbatov played well but is perhaps trying to do too much and therefore perhaps not always where you need him to be. Dejagah shows promise, Frei the same (although he HAs to be more aggressive in his running!) Sidwell had a strong game, Diarra, too, but… no, this isn’t right, Spurs were pretty good.

We didn’t deserve to lose 3-0 but these things happen when you make mistakes against good teams.

Chelsea 0-0 Fulham

Defending

In retrospect, we shouldn’t be surprised that two teams fielding three defensive midfielders each would get a bore draw on a cold night in West London. Both teams battled in a rather fruitless affair and Fulham could have snatched all three points, conjuring up the best chances in the second half.

Fulham lined up in a hybrid 4-3-3/4-5-1/4-2-3-1 with a defensive bent to counteract a potent Chelsea team, who up until recently, had been scoring with ease in the league.  A midfield trio of Diarra, Sidwell and Karagounis did the water carrying, but a lack of creative midfield spark left Berbatov stranded up top for most of the first half, as Chelsea controlled possession but could not find a way past the resolute Fulham defence.

In the second half, the game opened up slightly. A fantastic ball over the top of the Chelsea defence by the hard working Karagounis found an onrushing Riise who managed to fluff a relatively simple chance and weakly push the ball into Petr Cech’s arms.  Changes were made to both sides which saw the game open up further, but unfortunately the quality of the game did not follow the games upward trajectory.

Kerim Frei did add some pace, ingenuity and danger to the left flank that Fulham had been missing, and he made several good runs, but a lack of match sharpness was clear. His passing was poor when he got himself into good positions. Despite this, he did lay off a good pass on the edge of the area to Riise, who hit a rasping shot which tested Cech and brought a corner.

As the game came to a close, there were a few late penalty area scrambles but nothing came of them and the game finished goalless.

All in all, a good away point at a top 4 side. Fulham could have grabbed all three and despite the dullness of the match, it felt like a reassuring hug from a Fulham team reminding us that they still can defend when needed. The defensive performance was superlative and Hughes and Senderos put in a performance which will hopefully wake Brede from the slumber he has been in all season. With a resurgent Spurs side up next (damn you Moussa!) it was important for Fulham to get more points on the board and prevent a potential run of four straight defeats.

Stoke 1-0 Fulham

The sort of game that makes you want to kick a dustbin. Fulham, so lively and so bright in recent times, stunned by the usual mess from Stoke, a team of trees that is always greater than the sum of its parts, always seems to have extra players on the pitch. Stoke seem to fill every area, and Fulham’s players rarely found space until a frenetic last ten minutes when we threw the kitchen sink into proceedings. And even then there wasn’t really anywhere to construct anything, as Stoke were packed deep and determined.

It’s hard to know what Martin Jol might have done differently. Without Ruiz the team tried a moderately successful approach that involved Baird, Sidwell and Karagounis in the middle and Berbatov and Petric up front. Dejagah was the true winger in all this.

But the trouble was, we couldn’t settle on the ball, despite having all these midfielders. Stoke eventually scored a very Stoke like goal, a deep cross knocked down by Peter Crouch and swivelled on by an advanced Charlie Adam. It’s not a goal you’d want to concede and it was a shame that Crouch wasn’t troubled more, but this is what Stoke do so well. The disappointment is more that we weren’t able to impose ourselves on them at all, which meant that Begovic had absolutely nothing to do until some late efforts from Berbatov and Petric, the latter in particular making us wonder what might have been: a devilish swirling shot that Begovic didn’t like one bit and spilled.

By then we had Duff on, Rodallega too, but there wasn’t enough exact football in the final third, mainly because Stoke were defending well. What do you do? We have no big target man, that’d be playing into their hands anyway, so the only option was to keep trying to play. Perhaps we might have tried to go through the middle more, and Sidwell’s occasional bursts hinted at something, but it didn’t feel like there were any good answers. We had most of the ball but just couldn’t make anything happen.

We defender okay too. Tony Gale in commentary seemed keen to adopt the fashionable “Senderos is an accident waiting to happen line” whenever Stoke attacked but he didn’t look so bad to me. An average performance in trying circumstances. And Stoke only had two shots on target all game (so did we, of course), so there’s that, too.

You have to look at these games in isolation and in context of others. In isolation it’s a tight defeat at a difficult place to go. In context it’s another game without getting what we want, but at this point nobody need worry – we’ll start winning again soon.

 

Fulham 1-3 Sunderland

Sometimes you just get a feeling about games. Just when you think things are going well, there’s a nasty surprise around the corner.  In this case the nasty surprise came in the form of Sunderland, a spluttering version of their former selves, Martin O’Neill more or less failing to ignite his expensiveish team to the point where until very recently only one person – Stephen Fletcher – had actually scored for them. But what Sunderland have is a bit of midfield bite, terrors down the flanks, and the fortune to be playing Fulham on a dark Sunday when bad vibes were everywhere. So yes, sometimes you just know.  I put my money where my mouth was and placed a hefty £4 on a Sunderland win, cashed out at half-time when the score was 0-0 but when Brede Hangeland’s sending off had placed Fulham’s game in jeopardy.

It was just one of those games. Sunderland aren’t all that and with 11 men I’m sure my bad vibes would have ended up being misplaced, but as it was we didn’t have 11 because Brede Hangeland became a victim of the current “thou shalt not tackle” dictum. Yes, he left his feet, but only so he could execute a tackle on the half-way line that wasn’t exactly perfectly timed but which did win the ball. The referee’s red card brought disbelief from Hangeland and indeed everyone else. Martin Jol stood up from his bench, for example.

Fulham nearly went ahead anyway, John-Arne Riise shot across goal and hit the bar via a deflection, but this was a problem in the making. With 10 men our covering options were perhaps diminished and nobody had taken Riise’s place. Sunderland broke, Senderos gestured behind him to nobody and ended up covering two people but nobody, a great pass took him out and Fletcher scored easily at the far post. Harsh on Fulham.

But an equaliser came, Duff teeing up the lively Petric for a well taken equaliser. Petric came on when the influential Ruiz was removed with an injury, and made the most of his chance. He’s become a bit of a forgotten man what with everything, but showed phenomenal skill on a number of occasions. We ought to find a way to make the most of his talents, and he should certainly have taken more of the free-kicks we kept winning.  Rodallega seems no better than Riise at these, but still positions himself as one of the go-to-people when there’s a shot on.

Sunderland went back ahead with a Cuellar header from another set piece, Steve Sidwell underlining a miserable game for him by not getting close enough to the goal scorer (and doesn’t that feel like a strange marking assignment?).

Sidwell. I watch Berbatov with interest. Does he feel his team-mates are good enough? Who does he work well with? Ruiz, Duff, anyone really. But his every interaction Sidwell seemed to end in disappointment. I exaggerate, and credit to Sidwell for getting into a few good situations, but it just wasn’t happening. A missed chance in either half following some Berbatov genius was the biggest issue, and could have made the game quite different. But again, credit Sidwell for making the right runs.

Stephane Sessegnon, who apparently has been pretty terrible this season, scored a screaming third to sort it all out once and for all, a wonderful fading drive that Schwarzer couldn’t get near.

3-1, and that was that.  It was an unfortunate defeat for Fulham but not one that holds any great meaning in the big scheme of things: just one of those things.

 

Arsenal 3-3 Fulham

I’ve written about 20 opening paragraphs and none of them seem to work. My mind is racing. I can’t quite take everything in.

The important thing here is to appreciate that for all the talk in the media, Arsenal are one of the game’s better teams. They are good players and today they were at home.  Then they went 2-0 up.  In these situations it isn’t normal for opposing teams to emerge with much.

And yet here we were, 3-2 up late on. Media people like to bang on about spirit and determination but that’s a given really. No, you get results like this by playing fearless attacking football, but by doing it with gifted attacking footballers.
That’s the trick. In Dimitar Berbatov Fulham have a player who could be playing for the league champions. Also, he’s not just a reactive player who can only work with what he’s given; Berbatov is still playing champions level football for Fulham. It’s astonishing. He’s a lot better than he looks, and he looks fantastic.

As does Bryan Ruiz, who is starting to silence his doubters. Soon there will be no weaknesses to pick on, for today he was everywhere, tackling, running, creating. From a distance he could have been Dembele handing off potential tacklers. Or, as Toby put it, he could have been David Beckham circa England v Greece, adopting that demeanor that says “I am going to do everything in my power to make this game end well for my team” and playing an absolute blinder.

Back to the start. Arsenal scored early when Giroud thumped in a near post header having escaped Aaron Hughes en route. It was the sort of goal that you enjoy if your team scores it, but which looks very poor if you’re on the other end.  Here we go again, etc.  Indeed, not long after this a careless jab of John Arne Riise’s boot sent a ball into a dangerous area for Mikel Arteta to square to Lukas Podolski, who sliced through the penalty area and scored a second.

This should have been the end of things, but Fulham got one back, Ruiz swinging a corner into the middle of the six yard box from where Berbatov made everyone else leave it so he could head home unopposed.  I don’t know how that works, one suspects Berbatov has access to skill-sets beyond those we mortals might understand, something psychic probably, and anyway there it was, 2-1.

As if to underline his mastery of the world of football Berbatov then picked out Alex Kacaniklic for an equaliser. This was odd, too, Kacaniklic can’t have been in Berbatov’s field of vision, but there came the ball, stood up carefully, and Kacaniklic walloped home a header from further out than you’d expect him to be able to score with a header from. Like I say, there’s some funny stuff going on and ultimately you just have to smile and not think too much about it. (But can Berbatov control crosses even after someone else has headed them? How else to explain it?).

2-2, then, and we weren’t done. Bryan Ruiz collapsed under some mild tugging from Arteta and Phil Dowd offered Fulham a penalty. Berbatov decided to score to the goalkeeper’s right, and that was 3-2.

Arsenal had to go for it, then, and equalised when Giroud headed home again. This set up a devastatingly worrysome finale in which Dowd gave Arsenal an iffy injury time penalty, Arshavin having crossed directly at poor Sasha Reither’s hand from close range. Arteta shot low to Schwarzer’s left, but the big man in green pushed it away. Justice!

3-3 was a fair result in the end. Fulham took the old Blackpool approach to away games, which seems like the sensible thing to do given the quality of player we’re able to use these days. Jol used Ashkan Dejagah on the right, and he brought a rugby winger’s directness to our play down that flank. On the other wing Kacaniklic flickered in and out, but found himself in a few good positions and had to be respected.  Berbatov and Ruiz we’ve already talked about.  Both were fabulous.

Martin Jol has made football fun again. Not that it wasn’t fun, it’s just that there’s a purity about what we’re doing now. It’s perhaps too obvious to reach for the Dutch explanation, to suggest that Fulham are taking that country’s famous footballing mentality into games and producing such great entertainment as a result, but it’s starting to feel that way. Terrific stuff.

Fulham 2-2 Everton

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.

Reading 3-3 Fulham

Helter skelter nonsense in which Fulham played very well for the most part but failed to take all the points because they conceded three times to a more than ordinary Reading team.

Happily a dowdy deficit was overturned by our own cause celebre Bryan Ruiz, who transformed the game as soon as he got on the pitch. It was as if someone had finally remembered where they’d left the front door key and all of a sudden everyone could go inside and have a cup of tea.

The equaliser was probably Ruiz’s third best Fulham goal yet still better than most players could conceive of scoring. Predatory buildup work from a now incisive Fulham then Ruiz whacked an absolute corker against the grain into the top corner.

Then he set up Chris Baird’s go ahead header, a nice corner headed in near post in pleasing style. BUT Baird injured himself just before this and the game descended into messiness. There were 22 players out there so you can’t blame this on the absence of one man, but Baird is as clever a footballer as he is skilfull, and somehow things were worse without him.

Reading equalised messily (as they would again not long after), Berbatov – a fiery game from him – put Fulham ahead again, then Reading bundled in another to make it 3-3. It felt like golden era Fulham, where goals flew in all over the place and Johnny Haynes must have had entirely mixed feelings about his current stationing in life.

Ultimately you’d have to be a bit grumpy to not enjoy what Martin Jol’s team are doing. In the past we have failed to beat equally poor sides so the fact that we can draw away from home with such verve must be seen as progress of sorts.

Fulham 1 Manchester City 2

A gallant effort but one ultimately doomed to failure. Fulham did their best to resist the attacking fluency of City and for 80 minutes seemed to have succeeded until late changes to both sides saw the current league champions finally find a way past our defence.

I’d love to be able to give you some flowing prose about the opening exchanges in which the Whites were perhaps the stronger side. Unfortunately my arrival at the ground was delayed due to my Dad getting stuck on the M25 and we missed the first 25 minutes. In that time we’d taken the lead after Riise had won a possibly soft penalty that Petric calmly converted. Rodallega had almost collected a Chris Baird through ball, and later done well on the left wing to set up Petric, who scuffed his shot over the bar.

By the time I was in my seat City were beginning to take a greater hold on the game and the chances came thick and fast. Riise looking a little exposed on the left (with Fulham lined up 4-3-3) was struggling to contain Zabaletta and City were retaining the ball better than we could. A goal mouth scramble saw the ball poked towards the net but somehow Schwarzer combined with a bevy of Fulham defenders to stop it from crossing the line. It was a brief respite though as, with two minutes to half time, Tevez fired in a deflected shot that Schwarzer did brilliantly to save but our old nemesis Aguero popped up to poke in the rebound.

The second half struggled to find the same spark of excitement. City dominated possession but rarely looked capable of carving out a clear cut opening. Baird & Sidwell worked hard in the middle to disrupt their attacks, and both fullbacks strove manfully to contain City’s wide men. Tevez departed to a chorus of insults to be replaced by Balotelli and Fulham switched to 4-4-2 as Alex Kacaniklic replaced the fading Petric. We managed glimmers of hope with a couple of counter attacks as the game became stretched. Good work from Kacaniklic seemed to have gone to waste as he ran into a wall of defence but he did find room to cut back a pass and Ruiz fizzed a shot towards goal that force Hart into a prompt save.

Baird signalled to the bench he’d done something to his leg and was replaced with 10 minutes to play by the eagerly anticipated Karagounis. The greek was straight into the fray, disappointly conceeding a free kick in the edge of our box. Thankfully, after some ball placing shenanigans, Balotelli smacked his attempt straight into our wall and the threat was wasted. Luck would not remain on our side though. City’s strength in depth was highlighted further when they introduced Edin Dzeko late on. He scored within a minute after out defence, surely running on vapours by now, failed to clear the ball and his sliced shot flew past Schwarzer into the top corner. A well taken goal but a bitter blow.

Wigan 1-2 Fulham

Towards the end of last season Wigan went on a mind-bending run that saved their bacon. In that run they lost to Fulham, confirming something we’ve long suspected, that we have our historical league-mates’ number.

Usually Clint Dempsey scored the Wigan beating goals, but he’s swapped Martin Jol for Andres Villas Boas, a small pond for a medium sized one, and now we need someone else to beat Wigan.

It’s not going to be a problem, is it?  Dimitar Berbatov won’t score twice every game but few teams will shut him out for 90 minutes. Today he made the first, crucial goal, and from there the game was ours.

Before the goal came Berbatov had a practice effort, wandering around the defence before flipping a nice cross onto the head of the surprisingly aerial Rodallega. This one was saved, but the pair had another go soon afterwards. Berbatov, gentler this time, a delicious cross that you’d expect Peter Crouch to put away, but again Rodallega reminded us that timing and spring are everything in attacking headers, up he went, in it went, and Fulham were rightly ahead.  Rodallega showed respect for his former employers by not celebrating, which was good of him.

At this point Fulham were rampant, mainly down the right flank where Duff was maintaining his good form. There was no obvious source of our superiority, our players just seemed to be sharper than theirs. Wigan did have a good chance when a first-time shot banged against Mark Schwarzer’s crossbar, but it would’ve been an unjust concession: Fulham deserved to be ahead at half-time.

The second half was always going to be trickier but Wigan didn’t reach top gear until we’d scored again, Ruiz bumbling around in the D (and therefore drawing defenders to him) before feeding a completely free Duff, who scored convincingly.

Do you remember Duff’s Fulham debut?  He came on and within seconds had beaten his man on the touchline and made a goal. He looked thrilled. Here was another Roy Hodgson makeover, a great player down on his luck enjoying his football again. He hasn’t really stopped since then and it’s been one of the wonders of modern Fulham that we’ve had a player like this in our team for a decent while now. Duff’s been terrific and while we all know he’s been terrific, perhaps we don’t always appreciate how terrific.

Anyway, that was 2-0. Wigan got one back very late on but Fulham won these three points easily enough. It wasn’t like last week when the midfield absolutely dominated, this was more of a team performance where we were a bit better than them everywhere, and had the nous and opportunity to make the most of our quality. Football doesn’t always reward good performances, particularly away from home, but this is why you sign Dimitar Berbatov isn’t it?  Quality in the penalty box makes the difference.

Fulham 3-0 WBA

All the misery seems misplaced now. Central midfield problem? Not when the back-up back-up plan can run a game against decent opposition. Chris Baird and his messier partner, Steve Sidwell, proved once again that at a stable club no single player is indispensible, no five players even. We can lament the mislaying of Dempsey, Dembele, Murphy, Etuhu and all the other stalwarts of days of yore, but there is much to be excited about, too.

Dimitar Berbatov for one. We had been very excited about him, of course, but today he proved that the strolling reputation is partly an exaggeration: he cares, as witnessed when he showed his frustration with his new, non-Champions League team-mates.

Equally, he shared the love when others’ play merited it. Alex Kacaniklic, thrown away by an increasingly hilarious Liverpool, was in rare form on the left wing, and his jinking directness set up Berbatov’s goals. For the first he drew three players, passed inside, and Berbatov only needed the second he got to control aim fire. Ha. Class.

The second was a penalty after Kacaniklic had sped outside his full-back and been tripped. At first it looked like Hugo Rodallega wanted it but there is a pecking order for these things and that begins with the superstar, who made Ben Foster fly in the wrong direction and putted home.

Berbatov said thank you to his friend on the wing, which is how it should be.

West Brom also had a man sent off, Peter Odemwingie swinging a boot into a space that Sascha Riether occupied. Riether exploded into the air as if he’d trodden on a landmine, and it looked as if Odemwingie had to go. I have my doubts, even after seeing the replay. I think it might just have been a really unfortunate accident, but perhaps not. Either way, it more or less killed the game, if not Riether, who was able to regain his composure and soldiered on.

The second half was okay. Foster made some splendid saves, especially from Duff after the latter walloped a trademark howitzer from the edge of the box, which may have deflected on the way. He made a handful of further saves to keep the game tight, but was ultimately powerless to stop a Steve Sidwell strike from close in, Kasami and Rodallega (both trying far too hard to make an impression in the second half) both having a go before Sidwell bundled a bouncing ball into an empty net.

Another good home win. We kept the ball fabulously well at times, and in Riise we have a full-back at the top of his game. Duff is putting in a Simon Davies c.2007 season whereby he’s 8/10 every match, and the other attacking players all did well enough. Berbatov visibly slowed towards the end but his debut was all we might dared have hope for. It’s hard to describe how exciting it is to have a player like this in front of you. It didn’t all work out for him but the class is shining through already. Fantastic.

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