Paul Tierney blew his whistle, the ball dropped out of the sky and was grabbed by Tim Ream, and history was made as the Premier League, for the first time ever, broke for the World Cup. The final game before the six-week shutdown was an enjoyable romp that culminated with that most familiar of tropes, a last-minute Manchester United winner, slid in by the 18-year-old substitute Alejandro Garnacho.
A crisp evening by the Thames. The bells of All Saints welcoming the throng through Bishops Park. Smoke rising from the fast-food vans into the chill, clear air. The trees an autumnal gold. In the morning, a gentle mist had hung over the river, perfect for the old maids to cycle through on their way to holy communion. It was the sort of November day that has made trips to Craven Cottage so evocative since it first became the home of Fulham in 1896. It certainly was not the sort of day to make you feel as though, a week less half an hour after kick-off, the World Cup would be getting under way.
There has never before been a gap of fewer than 16 days between the Champions League/European Cup final and the start of the World Cup; for there to be less than seven days between the end of domestic action and the start of the tournament inevitably augments the sense of football as a remorseless treadmill, fixture after fixture following in endless, accelerating succession, and can only increase the issue of fatigue.
The result was a distinct last day of term feel about Fulham, of this somehow lacking the dread earnestness of most match days. Uniform guidelines were perhaps relaxed, some of the younger classes brought in games, there were squabbles in the staff-room over the one working video recorder and the tape of the Tom Hanks film Big, and nobody really bothered too much with the boring stuff, like defensive structure or playing the safe pass. The result was a very open and thoroughly engaging game that swept from end to end with exhausting intensity.
There was certainly no obvious sign of players holding back. Nor was there any suggestion that the absences of five players who could have major roles to play at the World Cup – Cristiano Ronaldo, Raphaël Varane, Antony and the suspended Diogo Dalot for United and Aleksandar Mitrovic for Fulham – were down to anything other than bona fide issues, but the shadows they left contributed to the air of vague abandon. Harry Maguire, lionheart of the England back three, at least should be fully rested, having spent the evening on the bench; he has played just 90 minutes of Premier League football in the past two months.
The absence of Ronaldo is of increasingly little concern to United. United have lost half the Premier League games he has started this season, averaging just a point a game, as opposed to 2.2 per game without him. United’s opener was finely constructed, evidence of the sort of football Erik ten Hag is looking to instil – and the reason why he eschews Brazil’s first-choice holding midfield pair to deploy Christian Eriksen alongside Casemiro. The Brazilian dispossessed Tom Cairney after 14 minutes, Eriksen then setting Anthony Martial running before advancing to slide in Bruno Fernandes’s cross at the back post.
The player who was missed was Dalot, the combination of Willian and Antonee Robinson repeatedly troubling his stand-in Tyrell Malacia down the Fulham left. Sure enough, that was where the Fulham equaliser originated, the duo combining to lay in Cairney to cross for the United old boy Dan James, who had been on the pitch just three minutes, to turn in.
There was still almost half an hour plus injury time to play at that point and, for a time, until the introduction of Garnacho restored some thrust to the United attack, Fulham looked the likelier to score. But it was United who, in the third minute of three minutes added time, grabbed the winner, the Argentinian drifting in from the left, exchanging passes with Eriksen and nudging his finish past Bernd Leno.
And then, poof, it was gone, the excitement doused, the stands emptied, the floodlights turned off to make way for Fifa’s shameful folly in Qatar, not to be reignited until Boxing Day.
Source: The Guardian