Jack and Loz not at Anfield for the Cup Semi-Final - Blog 269

Date: 10th January 2024

Competition: Carabao Cup Semi-Final First Leg

Opposition: Liverpool

Venue: Anfield

Score: 2-1

Fulham goal scorer: Willian

MOTM: was it Leno for keeping us in the tie, or Willian for scoring the goal and all around excellence, or Captain Reed for intelligent defending, energetic attacking and keeping it all together in the middle, or was it Antonee Robinson who was tireless and effective all night? This is not a rhetorical question. We don’t know the answer. Regardless of the scoreline, this was a brilliant team performance in which almost everyone played at the top of their game.

Fulham Football Club aren’t in the semi-finals of major cup competitions every year. Or even every decade. For Liverpool, Wednesday’s match was just another semi-final; this year’s Carabao is just another cup. For Fulham it means so much more.

Being a cup semi-finalist isn’t just about the chance of winning some much deserved Silvaware. Progression in the Carabao, building on a strong FA Cup run last season and another probable Premier League mid table finish shows how far we’ve come after the yo-yo years. And it also shows what we might be able to look forward to in the future.

The semi-finals we have played in recently have been the Championship play-offs. Both Slavisa Jokanovic and Scott Parker managed these well. Slav treated the semi-final against Derby as one 120 minute match divided into 4 quarters and his team ratcheted up the pressure every 45 minutes until Denis Odoi soared above the defence to head the ball and Derby slithered to defeat.

Marco Silva is a better coach than his predecessors (sorry Slav) and we were interested to see how he would manage a semi-final against, of course, superior opposition.

In fact, Marco got almost everything right (as usual). Liverpool knew they had to win the game - they couldn’t risk going to the Cottage for the second leg of the tie behind or level. So Marco’s game plan was all about organisation, discipline and containment. And hitting them on the break.

And for 65 tense, nervy but very satisfying minutes, that’s what we did.

Much has been made about Liverpool’s high profile (and highly paid) absentees but a squad like theirs didn’t feel the loss. The press was ridiculous, the speed and ferocity of the attacks terrifying even on TV. But Fulham didn’t panic. We kept calm, soaked up the pressure and defended as deep as we needed to. Whilst it’s fun watching free-flowing, five-scoring Fulham, watching steely, resolute, impenetrable Fulham was inspiring.

Our goal didn’t come from a counter-attack but from a Liverpool mistake which Bobby and Andreas leapt on. Even so, Willian had so much to do when he received the ball. It was a goal that only a Brazilian could score - no one else could keep the ball stuck to their feet as they jumped over one defender, dodged another and nutmegged Virgil Van Dyke to squeeze the ball into the gap between the keeper and the post.

Willian is one of the contenders for MOTM and not just because of the goal. In a match of this importance, against opposition of this quality, he showed his world class skills. Not just technique, but vision, teamwork and defensive commitment. One of the things which really stood out all game was the hard-won experience of many of our players - including Raúl, Leno and Andreas - and the intelligence with which they use it.

Having started the half under pressure we grew stronger and more confident as time went on and our lead was justified - the goal wasn’t the only time we threatened. Not everyone was faultless - Tosin couldn’t always keep up with the speed of the game and gave the ball away far too often and João was unusually reserved - but it’s hard to imagine a better half of football against one of the best teams in the world.

The second half began with a series of all out attacks from Liverpool and some brilliant defending from Fulham, particularly Castange and Robinson. The final score makes it look like it was just a case of how long we could hang on but it wasn’t like that at all. Although the midfield, especially Harrison Reed who kept getting flattered by bigger people and Andreas whose work rate was off the scale, began to tire we still created chances.

The best fell to Bobby to make it 2-0. He shot rather than passed and the debate rages on as to whether he could have passed to Andreas who might have got to the ball before the defender and might have had a better angle from which to strike. Or he might not.

Missed chances aside, Fulham were undone by a shot which deflected off the hapless Tosin and the fact that Jurgen Klopp was able to gnash his glow-in-the-dark teeth and bring on subs worth approximately the GDP of a large country. But even though this all happened in the space of 3 devastating minutes, Fulham survived the shock and regrouped, making Liverpool fight to the end.

The only thing Marco did wrong (not for the first time, unfortunately) was bringing on our subs too late. The flagging midfield needed freshening earlier although it’s a testament to their superb fitness that both fullbacks, Bobby and Raúl spent over 90 minutes covering all areas of the pitch constantly in top gear.

Defensively, we missed Bassey although Diop played well. Leno was superb throughout and his point blank save in the closing Moments may well prove as valuable as a goal.

It says a lot that Fulham fans came away from the game (or turned off theTV) disappointed with a score which, objectively, most would have accepted before kick-off. But this wasn’t a league match. We haven’t lost. We’re halfway through a cup tie and only 1 goal down. Our Genius will already be working on his game plan for the second leg and the players want a trip to Wembley just as much as we do. This isn’t over yet.

Random musings:-

- Raúl tried a Rabona cross. He clearly can’t help himself but learning to kick with his left foot would be another solution

- The game was definitely better without VAR. The ref did a pretty good job of letting the play flow but was inconsistent with his yellow card

- We know Andreas came from Man U where such things are encouraged but the rolling on around on the floor was a bit excessive

- Huge kudos to the travelling fans who came through loud and proud on the TV….

- …..not quite loud enough to drown out the most biased commentary in the history of football though.

In two weeks time we will play the second leg at Craven Cottage. It’s impossible not to compare this semi-final, and this opportunity, with the Europa League matches which we still talk and dream about. In those too we were the underdogs; in those too we often had to come from behind.

Under the lights at the Cottage magic can happen. But only if we make it. We’ve mentioned the Derby match where the atmosphere was tangible and all-enveloping. But we need more than that. We need an atmosphere Beyond Compare. The spirit of the Cottage needs to be the same as it was on the night we sang Stand Up if You Still Believe.

We are Fulham Football Club. We are 90 minutes from a final at Wembley. And we will never stop believing.