Hugo the Faith Healer

Posted by Phil Mison

Ian Walton/Getty ImagesHugo Rodallega's header helped end Fulham's drought

Hallelujah and hold the back page. Fulham have won a game! At the eighth time of asking, the side at last found another gear to claim all three points with a deserved, yet narrow, 2-1 win over Newcastle. "Can we play you every week" rang out on a bitingly cold night as Craven Cottage once again proved a graveyard for the traveling Magpies. A goal in each half from Steven Sidwell and Hugo Rodallega had Martin Jol beaming again as Alan Pardew's Toon Army succumbed to their sixth loss from their last seven trips to SW6.

The omens suggested this might just be the night to turn it around. When Newcastle came down last Jan. 21, there was a 13-point gap between the teams. Newcastle were flying in sixth; Fulham was 14th but six points away from the relegation places. Yet that wintry night under the lights Fulham came alive in the second half, with Clint Dempsey grabbing a hat trick for a 5-2 trouncing that defined Fulham's season run in from that point on.

Let's hope Monday night has the same effect. I’ll be honest. I did not see it coming and travelled to the game in downbeat mood, not helped by the freezing cold. Yes, my prognosis pre-match was sparing in backing the Whites to come good (you noticed?) but my straws in the wind turned up trumps if I may blow my own trumpet.

I talked Sidwell up before the game. Over our indifferent patch, he has never gone missing, battled to retain his place, and after problematic hernia surgery that almost forced him into retirement, is starting to look like a £4 million player again. No wonder Reading would love to have him back. Go Sidders to silence the moaners!

His inclusion leaves Mahamadou Diarra on the bench – the right choice. He missed two days training again last week because of his suspect knee. Martin Jol already knows he loses Diarra to the African Nations Cup next month, and he is another of the 30-plus club whose game has suffered without Moussa Dembele and Dempsey around him. Too many games have been passing him by during Fulham's dodgy spell.

I demanded a start for Damien Duff. Two assists plus his energetic performance fully justified his selection. He still has the ability to hurt teams when he raises his game in the way pretenders to his position cannot. Ashkan Dejagah and Kieran Richardson can warm the bench a while longer. Kerim Frei should sit down with some old videos of Celtic’s Jimmy Johnstone, he of the Lisbon Lions, to see how a nimble pocket-sized winger can add to his repertoire of tricks and really unpick teams. He’s young enough to learn if given the right coaching.

In my preview I prayed whoever got cast as Starsky to Dimitar Berbatov’s Hutch might finally come to the party. It’s been tough evaluating the supporting cast – each has shown flashes in audition without quite nailing the part. In the summer though this writer was genuinely excited by the Rodallega coup.

Here was a £5 million man Fulham picked up for nothing. I wasn’t sure about his temperament but he’s tall and rangy, strong on the ball, has an eye for goal, and kept Wigan afloat in his time at the DW. Of course, he’s no Brian McBride. But I say there’s a lot more to his game than Pavel Pogrebnyak, and with a defined role for him as striker to link with Berbatov, this could well be the way forward in a 4-4-2 that gives the wingers someone to aim crosses at.

I hope very much for the same eleven taking the pitch against QPR. Here especially we must focus on Rangers uncertainty at the back, where Ryan Nelsen has to cover for the abysmal Anton Ferdinand. After beating Newcastle, we have momentum again to carry into the local derby. I do not want to see it dissipate. One of the joys Monday was to see Fulham start on the front foot and raise the energy levels. The players and Jol spoke about it beforehand and thank goodness the issue was addressed. We know now there was a crisis meeting between Jol and the squad in the last few days to arrest the slide down the table.

Can we improve further in the coming weeks? Definitely. The press and all Fulhamites who watched, either live or on TV, commented that keeper Mark Schwartzer is a disaster waiting to happen. Another howler of a clearance straight to Hatem Ben Arfa that nearly cost Fulham, uncertainty with Newcastle's goal. Mark is the model professional and a super guy, but a recall for David Stockdale must be actioned. We have a quality keeper for the next five years on our books.

Start playing him Martin! I chart Fulham’s decline under Chris Coleman from the day Edwin van der Sar was gifted on to United for just two million. The Dutchman went on to new heights at Old Trafford, establishing a new shutout record for a goalkeeper along the way. Fulham meanwhile went through keepers like ninepins – Niemi, Warner, Lavutska, Keller…

To conclude, here’s the controversial bit. Disregarding the uncertainty of who might be added in the January window, how do we make ourselves harder to break down at the back, and where does Bryan Ruiz fit in when fit? Bravo to Sascha Riether for two timely interceptions on the line and another sterling show Monday. When Bryan returns he must clearly play in midfield, but Sidders is needed there too to put in the tackles and put himself about.

Tactical solution? Chris Baird comes out of central midfield and goes to left-back. A mirror image of Riether on the other flank. Dogged, dependable, an excellent reader of the game, strong in the tackle and never panics. There you go Martin, digest please at your leisure. We may not be professional coaches on this blog, and we’re not party to what you get up to on the training ground, but we FFC fans know what we are talking about.

Here’s hoping we are talking three more points come Saturday to keep QPR firmly in their place! And you know my predilection for music references . . . .got the one at the top yet?



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