Canaries plucked again

Posted by Phil Mison

Rene Meulensteen may not be dealing with a full pack over the holidays, but going for four-of-a-kind the Whites already have one ace in the hole after a really gutsy win at Carrow Road on Thursday. The manager made five changes for the Boxing Day game against Norwich yet still saw Fulham conjure a third away win with a collective performance that spoke volumes for the new spirit inside the camp.

The three points were so very crucial on a day all the teams at the bottom managed to win. That means Fulham remain in the bottom three as they head up to Hull on Saturday, but this surely is the defining result in Fulham's dismal season to date. As previous blogs hinted, with Meulensteen yet to complete a full month in charge, the tide has turned down at the Cottage.

The side were far from their best against a Norwich outfit who had won two and drawn two of their last four at home and were looking to push on into mid-table with another win over the floundering Londoners. Ah, but we really have the hex over the Canaries -- this was their 13th unsuccessful attempt on the spin to claim a win over the Whites.

I made the short trip up to Norwich along with our sell-out away compliment, none of who needed reminding of the spell we seem to cast over the Norfolk side. I have nothing but good memories going up there, remembering Fulham goals of the past from the likes of Karl-Heinz Riedle, Barry Hayles (a blinder!) and Andy Cole that stunned the locals into silence.

Now add to that catalogue of excellence an 87th-minute screamer from the tireless Scott Parker that saw Fulham home. At last it was the Whites finishing the stronger in the final 20 minutes. And Parker had a stormer!

But it was nail-biting stuff again, with Fulham still looking vulnerable to any high ball slung into the box. The performance was even more praiseworthy when you consider the spine from Martin Jol’s old side were absent. No Maarten Stekelenburg (twisted ankle, also missing for Hull), Philippe Senderos (torn muscle), Brede Hangeland (rehab from surgery), Giorgos Karagounis (fatigued) and Dimitar Berbatov (failed late test).

It seemed the fates were against Fulham yet again when a crazy deflection off Aaron Hughes left David Stockdale flapping at air after just 13 minutes for the Norwich opener. But a cleverly crafted leveler came 20 minutes later thanks to Steve Sidwell’s astute dummy and Pajtim Kasami’s stroked free-kick snaked through the wall to defeat John Ruddy’s dive.

Dwell on that goal for a barometer on what’s changed at the club in just 28 days. Parker, and others too, are now trying to commit defenders, take players on, push forward -- in contrast to the safety-first and endless lateral passing we saw from Jol teams devoid of organisation, confidence or a master plan.

Parker gets his legs taken just outside the box, and then Fulham fox the home defence with a routine clearly pre-meditated. That’s how you win football matches -- you prepare and you organise everyone in the camp to work to an overall plan. That’s how it was done at Manchester United, and that’s how it can work for Fulham, regardless of changes to the line-up.

What else did we learn from Boxing Day? There is life in this Fulham side without Berbatov. One does not lightly cast aside a player who top-scored for you last season with 15 and can still conjure something incredible in a heartbeat. But if marching on with a new work ethic and more pressing game tempo does not sit well with Dimi, then let him go in January. After all, from the West Ham game on Fulham have the one and only Deuce to slot back in. Captain America himself!

If anyone needed a reminder, as this blog has been saying for a year now, it is high time to thank Damien Duff for his services and pack him off to the League of Ireland. The tank is empty.

A glance over at the subs bench at the final whistle also spoke volumes. Three figures who Jol relentlessly pursued, convinced they were the finished article and would serve Fulham well -- Bryan Ruiz, Derek Boateng and Darren Bent. None saw game time, with Hugo Rodallega and Ashkan Dejagah the men sent on as replacements for tiring legs. Draw your own conclusions.

Only Fulham’s second win then in 10 since that joyous night at Selhurst Park, and Meulensteen recognises there’s still much hard work ahead. But the additional pair of eyes Alan Curbishly adds to the off-field set-up will only bring positives -- plus Fulham have both reinforcements lined-up for the January window and injured players returning.

The Whites have closed up on the midfield pack and with the upcoming schedule I’ll be surprised if Meulensteen’s marvels are still among the bottom four by the time Fulham return to Carrow Road for the FA Cup tie Jan. 4. This blogger suggested Fulham might come through all four holiday fixtures unbeaten (there’s a jar of Marmite on it if you’ve been keeping up). One down, three to go.

But I have a feeling Hull City may be the toughest of the four. They don’t concede that many at home and are really ticking with Tom Huddlestone pulling the strings. A frightening thought, they also work teams hard from corners and with aerial balls into the box. For this one I’d be happy with a point -- as long as Fulham murder the Hammers and Sunderland!


Twitter: @fulhamphil



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