CRAVEN Cottage is perhaps the most welcoming ground on the Premier League circuit.
Newcastle United’s players climbed off the team bus last night with carols ringing in their ears. They walked onto the pitch with a Christmas tree as the backdrop. It was a surprise Fulham’s players did not warm up in Christmas jumpers.
Then the game kicked off and it became clear Fulham were not in the mood for friendliness. Without one in seven games, the Cottagers were hungry for a win, and they knew how to get it.
Panicked Newcastle simply could not cope.
Fulham do not have a 100% home record over Alan Pardew’s Magpies by being all nicey nicey. In 2011, Steve Sidwell’s stray elbow broke the cheekbone of Newcastle’s last remaining centre-forward. In January they destroyed them with a second-half aerial bombardment.
As soon as they kicked off, polite, inoffensive Fulham resorted to a move straight out of the old Wimbledon coaching manual and John Arne Riise launched it into the cold night air. It came to nothing, but it was a serious statement of intent.
With number nine Dimitar Berbatov wrapped up in gloves and tights playing the numbe ten role he told the matchday programme he was “born for”, the considerably pacier Hugo Rodallega was selected to run behind Newcastle’s back four. The team with a badger for a mascot were nothing like as cute and cuddly as they seem.
Newcastle’s tactic – their only one it seemed – was equally basic and far less likely to succeed. As so often this season, they prayed Hatem Ben Arfa could drag them out of the mire. It worked for all of nine minutes and although he hardly dominated the game, it was a surprise the fit-again playmaker was withdrawn when Fulham regained the lead he had taken from them.
Newcastle also hit the ball long, putting the majority of passes and crosses too far in front of their intended targets. As in January, their defenders did not seem to know what to do.
It was not all caveman stuff, though, Damien Duff threading a second-minute pass through which Alexander Kacaniklic stumbled over.
But when Aaron Hughes launched the ball, Duff was able to pick Rodallega out with a cross as Mike Williamson pushed out for no apparent reason. The Colombian volleyed high and wide.
A minute later former Newcastle winger Duff was again causing bother, Williamson once more looking hapless. The ball was pulled back to Sidwell, whose shot went into the net off Williamson. The lead could have been doubled within a minute, Cheick Tiote selling Fabricio Coloccini short with a pass and allowing Berbatov to thrust forward. Tim Krul did well to beat the ball away with his right hand.
When he conceded possession again in a similar position, Newcastle were fortunate Williamson could get back to clear after Berbatov’s shot went through Krul.
Pardew’s response to the goal had been another switch from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2 and although it was not instant, Newcastle started to get to grips with the game – so much so that Sascha Riether twice had to clear off the line. First he headed away after Coloccini had sneakily arrived late at a corner, then blocked from Demba Ba at another one gifted by comical defending.
The next time Newcastle went behind, Ben Arfa’s substitution signalled a return to Plan A, Shola Ameobi the meat in a double Demba sandwich.
Newcastle had started the second half with much more of the ball but still their goal came from nowhere, and with a good dollop of fortune as Ben Arfa’s shot from the corner of the penalty area looped in off Riise’s shins and into the middle of the goal.
Mark Schwarzer had been as thrown by Ben Arfa’s body-swerve as Sidwell, and his weight was going away from the ball when the shot came in.
Suddenly it was Fulham who were looking daft, Riise failing to take advantage of a beautiful pass from Rodallega because as he turned back, he could not find the ball.
It was Fulham, though, who were galvanised by the goal, Krul soon having to rush out at Sidwell’s feet from a Berbatov pass.
A minute later they were back in front, Coloccini allowing Rodallega to beat him to a routine Duff free-kick he headed in. When Fulham counterattacked minutes later, Williamson ran across Tiote, causing him to concede possession for the umpteenth time, and Newcastle were fortunate Berbatov ran down a cul-de-sac.
Coloccini nearly had a wonder goal of his own, from a not dissimilar position to Ben Arfa’s but on the other side. When a long ball dropped to him, he shot against the junction of far post and bar. With defending proving quite tricky, the captain seemed determine to carry the fight to Fulham as often as possible.
Their response was to launch another ball to Rodallega, which Krul saved.
Former Middlesbrough goalkeeper Schwarzer had to make a good stretching save from Ba, and dropped on another from Jonas Gutierrez but although Newcastle applied plenty of pressure in the last ten minutes – in amongst a few dangerous counter-attacks culminating in Mladen Petric’s flash wide – their woeful performance deserved exactly what it got.