Soft centre – Fulham Report

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Latics 1-1 Fulham
Saturday, 15th September 2007

However you take your media, you’ll have gathered that the most important part of Saturday’s game was the injury to Emile Heskey. Excusable, I suppose, if you’re tucked away in your Southern home with only Monday’s commute on the M25 and the next England get together to worry about. For anyone with anything invested in this match there was plenty more to keep your interest up.

The “no bugger is going to buy a corporate seat for this one so let’s try and flog them to the lowlife” Fans’ Day offers are enough to tell you that even the club don’t see Latics vs. Fulham as an eye catcher. All you ever get from the “I’m only here to please my landlord/bookie/ex-missus” hired mouths is that the top flight isn’t one division any more; it’s actually a series of mini leagues.

If that’s the case then this was actually a big game. Along with Boro and a couple of others, these two teams make up the Sinclair ‘Almost as Likely to Qualify for Europe as get Relegated” Division 3. In that context three here would have been an early marker in terms of either side’s end of season options.

So the perfect opportunity for Latics to have their worse game of the season thus far, and they didn’t disappoint. Heskey’s absence, from the ninth minute onwards, didn’t help, but the deciding factor in this competition lay in the midfield. Fulham’s played with energy and invention, Latics like strangers who’d rather be in the stands.

That may be a little unfair, but, in the absence of Landzaat and Valencia, Chris Hutchings’ makeshift four hardly shined. David Cotterill, faced with a rare chance to stake his claim, decided instead to continue with his quest to prove that, yes, someone can be more ineffectual than Garry Teale and in the middle Scharner and Brown looked a complete mismatch.

I suppose that could be down to Brown, but we’re getting used to seeing Scharner and anyone as a mismatch and hopefully the manager can spot the same pattern. With Landzaat turning his reputation around and Brown continuing to impress the last thing that the Austrian needs is to be overshadowed by anyone, let alone Josip Skoko.

However it took the introduction of the Aussie to give the home side any sort of solidity, but by the time than he joined the fray things were looking pretty despondent. Behind to a well worked goal (aided and abetted by the aforementioned Mr. Scharner) Latics had created the odd chance, but nothing to get your hopes up.

In the end we needed Fulham’s help to get back into things, an avoidable tackle on Mario Melchiot providing the off colour Jason Koumas with the opportunity to start off his Latics account. The penalty duly dispatched, Latics could have ended up with the three points with what was possibly the best chance of the game. Unfortunately it fell to Scharner, whose bad afternoon continued as he could only direct his shot into Niemi’s arms.

The second half performance may have been improved on the first, but neither was up to scratch. A win would have been undeserved for Chris Hutchings’ men and we should be grateful that they came out of the game with anything. Even so there were positives to take from this.

Does anyone think that the class of 06/07 would have managed to get back into this game? Anyone who does obviously has a very short memory. There may have been some luck in how the draw was obtained and there may have been a fair bit of flapping about and lumping long balls but we didn’t lose. Who wouldn’t swap getting draws in game we should have lost for getting nothing from games we should have won?

I’ve already laid out the real context of this game, and whilst Fulham may have been the better side on the day, there wasn’t enough to suggest that they were so far ahead to suggest they will be miles ahead of us in the final reckoning. It’s always nice to get three points off your rivals but at this stage of the season it is more important not to lose.

There are still enough tomorrows left to make this result not matter and concentration has to shift onto the Reading game. Reading also look like they’ll be playing in our league this season and neither team will want to lose against the other. Indications are that the midfield will have to remain the same but we can look forward to a little more balance in defence (even if that is in the shape of Kevin Kilbane).

Of course the biggest decision will be on who should fill Heskey’s boots and with neither Aghahowa nor Bent looking particularly impressive Hutchings will have to think long and hard over this one. However the key will again come down to midfield, we can only hope that they will have been introduced to each other by Saturday.

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