Another sign this season holds plenty of promise for Fulham fans as three points were secured Saturday at the DW Stadium. We have not lost a game there since 2005. That means a run of 12 games undefeated against Wigan, and though they were no pushover, I felt we always showed that little edge of extra quality where it mattered - up front.
Frankly, these are the kind of games Fulham should always be in with a shout of winning. Now we have quickly rolled away the stone of sweating on our first away win this season. Let's hope it's a sign of greater things to come. We end the weekend sitting 6th, and should be full of confidence when facing the Champions next Saturday. Citeh will arrive at a sold out Cottage sitting one place below us in the league, and at present - packed with stellar names as we know - are giving up points and looking far from invincible.
At this point a year ago, matchday five saw Mancini's side come down to Craven Cottage after a blistering start with four wins from four. We went into the game then in the bottom three, having been held at home by both Villa and Blackburn (yes indeed!) and lost feebly on our travels at Wolves (and we know where they finished) and Newcastle. Two down into the 2nd half things looked bleak for us, but we rallied superbly to snatch a point with a cracker from Bobby and a deflected Danny Murphy effort. Remember the impromptu 'Poznan celebration' on the Hammy End? It proved a turning point in our campaign, though we still had to wait for the visit of QPR in game seven to nail our first win. The only way was up after that.
What's been the difference a year on? You don't need to be a master tactician to work it out. For reasons known only to himself Jol started last season by splitting the Hangeland-Hughes partnership. Crazy. Hughes quickly proved to all and sundry he was not a right-back. Martin got the message. But then we were going with Kelly and JAR as full-backs. Riise in particular had a poor start to the season. Eager to bomb forward no doubt, his judgment when to do so was suspect, he was too often caught out of position, looked less than sharp, made a series of crucial errors, his man-marking was not great. Admittedly, he did improve as the season wore on.
The midfield was marshalled of course by Murphy, Baird and Sidwell featured, as now, with the additional fourth man being made up from either Grygera or one of our inverted 'wingers' in Duff or Dempsey (I use the term loosely here) and Kasami was given a few games to impress. Dembele and Ruiz also played as part of the second bank of four without exactly setting the division alight. It was a work in progress that took until the New Year to really ignite - exasperating for both us fans and Jol himself. He does often speak with candour our Dutch uncle, and pre-Christmas after another awful away showing admitted the Fulham job was proving his toughest spell in management.
That side featured just one genuine target man in Bobby Zamora. When AJ was fit and selected we were nominally trying to embrace Jol's 4-4-1-1 or going more conventionally 4-4-2. Too often in games Zamo was pulling wide to drag defenders out of a congested goalmouth. The result as we saw week after week was a Fulham side that trundled up the middle of the park like a phalanx of Roman soldiers. We passed the ball to death, offered virtually no width, and prayed for Clint to pull rabbits from the hat. In a nutshell, we carried too little goal threat. Away from home we were cautious, unambitious and easily nullified. Even by mediocre sides like Wolves, Stoke, Villa and Blackburn.
What's changed? Jol knew all along what he really needed to play his way. Hence the big headlines way back in May that the two flying wingers from Heerenveen were on their way. Well, they weren't. But luckily for us at the tail end of the season Kacaniklic emerged as a real talent on the left-wing. Even more telling, after some two seasons of minor niggly injuries (calf, knee) Damien Duff has started this season like a train. Three goals already and my man of the match on Saturday.
Now Martin has his out-riders. He can also take his time integrating Ruiz into a machine that is already purring. But the fundamental difference and final piece in the jigsaw of course, is that we now carry real threat up front with two out and out strikers. Whichever two from three are permed, this is so much more weaponry than anything we had on the park last year - AJ straining to get any shot on target (QPR excepted) and Bobby battling away - while having his confidence eroded by the boss and his comments. Having given Zamo a four-year deal in 2010 the very day before his ankle was shattered, my suspicious mind suspects there was an agenda to have Bobby shifted off the books last season. Luckily for him Hughes obliged with a nice fat contract, we nabbed the Pog to plug the gap, and now with the capture of Berbatov, Petric and Rodallega have added immeasurably to the quality of our team. I'm even delighted to see BZ banging them in for the Ha-ha's, so everyone's a winner.
Since the transfer window I've been predicting we will score plenty of goals this campaign. Well, we're currently the league's top scorers! I'm not getting carried away after the Wigan win. With their five men in midfield they had more possession, and perhaps did enough to earn a point. We won't know how good this win is until we see how Wigan's season goes. Martinez had them organised and they gave it a go in the final twenty minutes that had me on edge. It was workmanlike in patches from the Whites when I was looking for us to really throttle the game, while we got lucky a couple of times and Mark was solid. Less so Riise. He put a suicide pass into midfield that left us horribly exposed when Kone raced clear and was at fault for their goal. But what Wigan didn't have was a finisher, with their top scorer di Santo sat in the stands.
Fulham at present have what appears the perfect blend in attack. Pace, guile, experience, strong mentality, with Rodallega, Berbatov and Petric all offering a different dimension. You could see Martin wasn't entirely satisfied with all aspects of the team Saturday, and we do need to get Richardson, Karagounis, Davies and Jedagah up to match fitness asap as midfield cover, but congratulations to the boss man for attracting these three major talents to the club for such a modest outlay. We'll be seeing plenty more of that big beaming smile from Jol in the months to come every time a reporter highlights the impact of his front men.
Bring on the Champions. This Fulham eleven need fear nobody. Twitter@fulhamphil