I have such a good internal clock that I never set an alarm. Not even a 7:30 a.m. kickoff on a cold Sunday morning worried me—I went to bed on Saturday, secure in the knowledge that I would be waking in plenty of time to reach the Globe by kickoff, where over, a hot cup of coffee, I would watch the mighty mighty Villa cap a perfect week by picking up another three points against lowly Fulham. The next thing I knew, it was 7:47 a.m. and I was lifting my groggy head from the pillow. (I might even have been drooling.) Shit!
By 7:51 I had the game on, just in time to see Steve Sidwell—Steve Sidwell!—put one past a not-quite-marking-him-tight-enough Bacuna, and Fulham—Fulham!!—were ahead 1-0. Never mind, I thought. Fluke goal, Villa will come back. Given the fight we showed against Southampton, and given our road form, how could we not?
Well, my faith was tested a mere nine minutes later, when Berbatov coolly, even insouciantly, sent Guzan the other way on a penalty to make it 2-0. The penalty call was soft (and, if it was a penalty and Bacuna was been the last defender, why did the ref keep his card in his pocket?) but no amount of outrage on my part would change anything. And, still, perhaps bizarrely, I wasn’t worried. Well, not too worried. Call me crazy, but, in contrast to the stomach ache I developed in the last ten minutes on Wednesday as I prayed for us to hang on to our lead against Southampton, I still believed that, once we found our rhythm, we would fight back.
After all, Fulham hadn’t won since October 21, when they gave a 4-1 thrashing to the equally miserable Crystal Palace. Not only had they not won, they had lost every game since, six in a row, all told.
But, as the second half wore on, and Villa time and time were bailed out by desperate defending, by Guzan’s typically strong performance in goal, their long-ball attacks quickly broken up, their shorter attacks lacking imagination or a clinical finish—a first goal from Villa began to seem less likely than a third goal from Fulham. Far from bunkering down and protecting their lead, Fulham—FULHAM!!!—were, dare I say it, swarming the ball, winning it back, and attacking us over and over.
It wasn’t a rout, but it was certainly closer to a rout than an evenly pitched battle.
The tiny pitch at Craven Cottage didn’t help, and our players seemed unable to even catch their breath, their clearances and long balls coming back at them before they could shake their heads.
What went wrong?
Were we tired from our efforts at Southampton? With only three changes from the frantic game, should Lambert have rested more players? Or would that only served to have further highlighted our lack of depth?
It’s tempting to look at our back line of Baker, Clark, Herd, and Bacuna. But, aside from Bacuna (at fault for the first goal, perhaps unfairly penalized for the second), none of them performed particularly badly. Herd, making his first start this season, was strong, and Baker and Clark merely average, not bad.
If anything, we were too weak in the midfield, when we weren’t bypassing them altogether with long balls, El Ahmadi virtually anonymous, Westwood was weak, and even Delph—though I remember one lovely moment of skill as he held the ball at the top of Fulham’s penalty area—had an unmemorable outing. Even worse, due to yellow-card accumulation, he’ll be out for our home game against Manchester United, where he will be badly needed.
Is it Benteke’s fault? You can’t help but think that, given the same opportunities last year, he would have finished them, making something out of nearly nothing.
Was it simply bad luck? The very soft penalty call in Fulham’s favor gave them a two-goal lead after only half an hour. And, in the 84th minute, when Gabby was brought down in the box for what seemed a clear penalty, Mike Dean kept his hand out of his pocket. Both decisions had an amazing impact on the game. And when Delph was taken down for a no-call, it clearly wasn’t going to be our day. You could hear the crowd singing, “Two-nil the referee.”
But bad calls aside, we were simply outplayed. Call it the new-manager bounce. I remember thinking, when Marin Jol was fired, well, they may win a game or two. It often happens, and so it did. They played more strongly than usual game in a 1-2 loss to Spurs, and then it was our misfortune to pay a visit to their home ground while they were still feeling a spring in their step. Aside from our strong start at the Emirates, London hasn’t much agreed with us, anyway.
Just the day before, I had posted on Facebook that I loved this season. And I do. How often are we within three points of Manchester United? How often does Everton beat Man United at Old Trafford? for that matter, how often does Stoke beat Chelsea? How often do we beat Arsenal away?
But the flip side of that is watching an utterly abject Fulham, a side that a week ago you would have bet money on to be relegated, suddenly come to life and soundly defeat a pretty decent Villa team.
Now it’s up to us to see whether we can give Man United a surprise as well.