On the bank of the Thames, Town’s survival hopes – already looking extremely forlorn – were sank in a quite awful performance showcasing all the flaws of a management team and squad which can produce creditable if largely unsuccessful displays against more fêted opposition but flounders badly when faced with their (alleged) peers.
A sterile first half largely played sideways or backwards racked up impressive possession statistics but virtually nothing of note in the final third other than weak efforts from Mounié and Pritchard, and with Fulham failing to rise above mediocre Wagner’s defensive minded team selection looked a huge mistake for a game where a win was desperately needed.
Epitomising the insipid, unimaginative and aimless showing was the number of unsuccessful attempts made to play Durm in behind Fulham’s left back after one early long ball had worked (without creating anything, naturally).
At least these passes were forward. The depth of risk aversion which infected the whole team was astonishing and paralysed whatever latent creativity existed in the eleven as a dreadful spectacle bored on seemingly endlessly. Neither set of supporters were given any encouragement as fear gripped two sides surely destined to meet again in the division below next season.
The only notable event worth recording from an atrocious first 45 minutes was a pretty bad challenge by Seri on the fragile Hadergjonaj – Seri was booked and may have been fortunate to stay on. Perhaps the referee noted that the player fouled seems to assume serious injury following every mistimed or slightly robust challenge and adopted a level of scepticism we all share about Flo’s histrionics.
The best that could be said about the visitors at this point is that they were solid and competent, and that their opposition managed to be even worse than they were. This could and should have triggered changes to at least attempt to improve Town’s offensive threat – going to a back 4, bringing on some pace, anything to create some change.
Instead, it was Ranieri who acted by replacing the ineffective and booked Seri with the more direct and powerful Kamara and the game changed as the home side acquired the energy they had so patently lacked in the first period and Town’s control of possession was lost.
The Cottagers didn’t transform in to world beaters, their manager simply concluded, along with the majority of the visiting support, that Town’s strategy of stifling play was fragile and one dimensional and just taking an initiative was likely to bear fruit.
Lössl, a spectator in the first half (luckily for him, he was being paid to watch the dross) was now being tested as the home side dominated the opening 20 minutes of the second half, pushing back the visitors and creating shooting opportunities which were well dealt with by the Dane.
With no control of the ball and looking increasingly ragged in the face of the hosts’ new found ambition, Town disappeared as an attacking threat. Two very poorly delivered free kicks which drifted out of play and the odd Billing long throw constituted the thrills on display for an increasingly disgruntled visiting support yearning for some adventure from their team.
Instead, they were treated to two quite ridiculous substitutions with the ineffective Mounié being replaced by the lumbering shape of Depoitre and the creativity of Pritchard by the mundane workhorse Kachunga. The replacements offered nothing new – no pace, no guile, no change of shape – and an actual reduction in potential creativity.
For a while, Town stemmed Fulham’s threat as the game resumed its tedious procession but a mishit cross bamboozled Lössl who’s clearance on the stretch was knocked on to Löwe’s arm for a clear penalty.
After a tussle over who would take it, Kamara placed the ball to Lössl’s left and it was a straightforward but important penalty save and it wasn’t long before Town had the opportunity to take advantage of the profligacy and seriously hurt their relegation rivals.
Breaking forward, Hadergjonaj waited patiently for Durm to break down Town’s right and fed the German to pick out one of the three players in the box (including one unmarked at the back post). Instead, he chose a low, hard ball which was cut out rather easily. Not that it mattered, as it fell to the unmarked Billing at the edge of the box who could deliver a good strike and gain 3 vital points.
In the real world, however, Phil tried a spectacular volley which left him on the ground and the ball on its way back up to the other end of Craven Cottage. Substitute Sessegnon – introduced for his pace by Ranieri – collected the ball on the halfway line, and moved forward. In front of him were 3 Town defenders and Mitrovic, with the Serbian making a run which Zanka spotted. Inexplicably, Zanka decided to go with him rather than just step up and play the forward offside. Having made one poor decision, his attempt to stop the striker was pretty pathetic and the goal condemned Town to a seventh defeat and probably the most horrible of the lot.
A late flurry of desperation in the final few minutes of injury time was as unconvincing as it was effective and it was hard for the fans behind the goal being mildly jostled in the second half to resist venting. Despite their consistent, loud and continuous support, the team had given them very, very little and there are few, if any, signs that 2019 will bring the miraculous improvement needed to avoid the drop. More likely, it will be the nature of the relegation – a fighting one or an ignominious one – which will cheer or depress.
Still, Happy New Year everyone!