Christmas is coming, and there is something in the air in the Premier League. A decade that has been remorselessly dominated by four clubs and four clubs alone is ending with at least three of those four clubs showing signs of wear and tear. Normal service may well be resumed in the new year, but for now the rest of the Premier League has scented blood and is going in for the kill. At the very top of the table, Chelsea and Manchester United have threatened to pull clear but even they have been stuttering of late, and at Craven Cottage yesterday Manchester United were completely outplayed by a Fulham side which is continuing to flower under an old stager.
Roy Hodgson carries the air of being from a different era, yet he has been a trailblazer in his own, understated way. While most from his era (or, considering his nationality, any era) have been terrified of setting foot outside of this particular sceptered isle, Hodgson has spent the majority of his managerial career on world tour. He has coached in Sweden, Switzerland, Italy, Denmark, the United Arab Emirates, Norway and Finland. On his world tour, he has picked up a thing or two and Fulham are now reaping the rewards of over a quarter of a century as a coach. In his first season, he guided them to unlikely survival relegation. Last season, he took them to an unprecedented seventh place in the Premier League and into Europe. This season, they are through to the knockout stages of the Europa League and have consolidated their place in the Premier League table.
Manchester United, meanwhile, are stuttering and coughing. Beaten at home by Aston Villa last weekend, they were given a hand by Wolverhampton Wanderers during the week, but, ravaged by injuries, United are struggling at the moment. It is Fulham that play the tidy football, a neat mixture of the short and sharp and the long and ambitious. United have approximately a quarter of a penalty appeal turned down within the first quarter of an hour, but from here on it is the home side that dominate. Dempsey’s cross is chested into the path of Zoltan Gera by Bobby Zamora and his lashed shot is brilliantly saved by Thomas Kuszczak. It is only a temporary respite. Midway through the first half, Fulham take the lead. Danny Murphy steals the ball from Paul Scholes and almost passes the ball, as if measured by slide rule, wide of Kuszczak and into the corner of the net.
Half-time brings an opportunity for Alex Ferguson to reorganise his makeshift defence. Twenty seconds into the second half, however, he must have been wondering whether it was worth bothering. Straight from the kick-off, a long ball forward was flicked into the path of Damien Duff, whose looping cross was controlled by Dempsey for BobbyZamora to fire the ball past Kuszczak to double their lead. Fulham throw a blanket across their third of the pitch and Manchester United, lethargic and under strength, can’t find a way through. With fifteen minutes left to play, another looping ball into the penalty area is brought down by the revitalised Zamora and Damien Duff volleys the ball under Kuszczak for a third goal.
What is shocking about this result is the ease with which Fulham managed it. Manchester United have lost matches to mid-table teams before in recent seasons, of course, but they were simply swept aside by a Fulham side that spotted a key weakness at the centre of the Manchester United defence – United were forced to play Ritchie De Laet and Darren Gibson because of injuries – and exploited it ruthlessly. In this match, however, they were completely outplayed in every department and injuries only make a partial explanation for the blandness of United’s performance. Where was Wayne Rooney? Where was Paul Scholes? Where was Darren Fletcher? Too many Manchester United players gave the impression of having already broken up for the Christmas holidays.
Fulham, meanwhile, continue to suprise and delight. Zamora, Dempsey, Gera and Duff have been reborn, with Damien Duff in particular fulfilling the potential that he never quite seemed to realise earlier in his career at Chelsea and Newcastle United. Moreover, this was a victory for Roy Hodgson. There often seems to be few people involved in top level football that we can describe as honest and decent, and Hodgson often gives the impression of being a throwback to a more innocent era. His team, however, is thoroughly modern and is now eyeing a new year to look forward to – Shakhtar Donetsk, their next opponents in the Europa League, will have been watching with interest, but there was certainly nothing in their performance yesterday to suggest that they won’t challenge for a place in Europe again at the end of this season. The notion of a first FA Cup final appearance in thirty-five years must also be an appealing one. As we head into the new year, Fulham have plenty to look forward to.