Fulham 1 Blues 1 .. Ron's Report

Alex McLeish made one change to the side that destroyed Chelsea (for 10 seconds) by bringing Alex Hleb in for Nikola Zigic to play just off Cameron Jerome.  I don't think you could really argue with the change, to be fair, and Hleb certainly proved his worth.

So, why did I think that it was a missed opportunity for Blues?  Well, mainly I thought that Fulham were fairly poor.  I know there are mitigating circumstances and that they've got a fair few players missing (Zamora, Dembele, Johnson, etc) but they still didn't look up to much and I feel Blues perhaps should have taken advantage.

It was a fairly even start with not a lot going on.  Blues took the lead after 20 minutes thanks to a fine goal, with Barry Ferguson, Hleb and the scorer Seb Larsson all playing their part.  Ferguson battled and won the ball in the Blues half on the left and managed to work the ball to Hleb.  The on loan Barcelona player then showed what we've all been waiting for - a superb run and some real dynamism and skill coming from Blues in an attacking sense.  After outpacing and out-thinking the Fulham defence, he cut inside and just as you thought he'd try and curl the ball towards the far corner he looked up, spotted Larsson and just coolly found him in acres.  Larsson took a touch and finished well.  It was a lovely goal all round, and Hleb played a massive part.

Blues looked comfortable at 1-0, but to me there were a few concerning signs towards the end of the first half.  As toothless as Fulham looked, Blues just began to concede possession a little too much.  The real problem was those in forward positions.  Having seen what Hleb could do, Blues struggled to get the ball to him much more - people may think that he drifts in and out of the game, and he does, but that's more because of the service that he gets than anything else.  Blues still continue to struggle to get him into the game.

And then there's Cameron Jerome.  I appreciate that people think that I get on his back a lot, and perhaps I do, but he is so utterly frustrating.  He actually started fairly well, but as the game went on, he appeared devoid of confidence and, worryingly, much interest.  His complete lack of ability in holding the ball up and retaining possession is a real issue - it means that Blues struggle to retain possession and are always under pressure.  He's been at the club for a while now, and his on the ball ability hasn't really improved as you'd have expected or have hoped.

Of course he has attributes and I don't want to be overly critical of him, but I do think we're entitled to expect a little more from him.  In the second half he was poor, quite simply.  I'll come to that again shortly though.

Anyway, there were signs of what might happen before half-time and sure enough, after half-time it continued.  Blues' ball-retention was poor and possession was conceded to Fulham all too often.  Sure enough, Fulham equalised.  The defence were generally good, but I do think questions need to be asked about the corner.  Zoltan Gera and Clint Dempsey are two of the best headers of the ball in the Premier League, let alone just at Fulham.  For Blues to allow them to win consecutive headers in the six yard box has to be a concern.  Gera headed across goal at the far post and Dempsey nodded home.

Immediately afterwards Blues suddenly strung some passes together and looked better again.  Why is the football that they play so different depending on the scoreline?  When Blues lead, they go into their shell and very, very rarely look like extending their lead.  When they're behind or they're pegged back though, suddenly they put decent football together and retain possession.  West Ham at home (2-0 down), Stoke away (2-0 down), Sunderland away (2-1 down) and here once Fulham scored - all examples of Blues being up against it and then putting together some good stuff.

Now, I'm sure that McLeish doesn't deliberately set out for the team to play with such inhibitions if they get a lead, but it does happen regularly and I think it's something that needs to be looked at - maybe it's those players on the pitch who just adopt that mentality?  

This season though we've seen Blackpool win 4-0 away at Wigan, Albion win 4-1 at Everton and got 3-0 up at Arsenal, Sunderland win 3-0 at Chelsea.  Are Blackpool, Albion and Sunderland much better sides than Blues?  The first two, definitely not.  Sunderland are arguably better, but not significantly so.  Can we imagine Blues going into a two or three goal lead away from home?  Not really, no.  If there's a one goal lead, Blues tend to sit back and look to hold on.  Now, I'm not saying that they should go gung-ho to get a second and a third, but they actually appear to stop playing and sit back.  Surely they can just keep on doing what they were doing previously?

Scott Dann hit the bar and then Ben Foster saved well from Eddie Johnson, but both teams seemed content with a point which was a fair result in the end.  Blues would have taken it before the game - any away point is decent really.  It's just a shame that Blues were in control and did look capable of going on to win against a poor team, but failed to do so.

Now to play Devil's Advocate... Alex McLeish might turn around and say to me "och aye the noo, wee lad, if big Cam ha' jis go' contro' o tha fitba when clean thru twice in the firs' ha', we might ha' bin 3-0 up".  Perhaps he's right.  But there's the problem with Jerome, and it goes back to what I've said.  His technical ability is so poor.  I said at the time that had Darren Bent received the ball in both of those positions, he'd have scored at least once, if not twice.  Sure, Jerome was still a long way out, but with his pace and power, such opportunities are chances.  Seeing Bent's goal at Wolves later only evidenced my point further.  The ball fell to him 20 or so yards out and he had a defender to outpace and a 'keeper to beat.  He scored.  Would Jerome have scored?  Who knows?  Maybe once in every fifteen attempts, yes.  Bent does once in every three though.

I know what you'll say, "Jerome only cost £4m and Bent cost about £12m".  I completely agree.  It's not necessarily Jerome's fault.  What it does highlight though is that Blues are desperate for a proper centre forward or two.  And I'm not talking about spending £4m or £5m on one.  I'm talking about spending £10m to £12m on one.  There's no guarantee of success, but once you're talking that sort of money, it's more likely to come off.

Blues' back nine is probably comparable with the "best of the rest" in the Premier League - I wouldn't necessarily swap our goalkeeper, back four and midfield for Sunderland's or Villa's or Bolton's.  However, in front of that nine, Blues are shown up.  Would I swap Jerome for Bent?  Yes.  For Gyan?  Yes.  For Carew or Agbonlahor?  Yes.  For Elmander or Davies?  Yes.  It's not Jerome's fault and he'd be a decent option as a squad player, but he's Blues' front-line striker and he's not good enough. 

It's not just Jerome.  Zigic hasn't made the impact people would have hoped, and behind him there's not enough quality in the forward positions.  Since Mikael Forssell really, Blues haven't had a proper, goalscoring centre forward.  It hinders the club and has done for years.  Now is the time that they need to go out and try and find someone who isn't going to get six to eight goals a season, but is going to get fifteen or more.  Sure they're hard to find and they're expensive, but Blues are suffering without someone like that.  The club will simply not push on without someone like that.  If we want to make that next step, this has to be a priority now.

It's not just the goals either.  The best centre forwards not only have that in their locker, but they're also talented players with some footballing ability.  Blues need someone who can just hold the ball up a little.  All it takes is four or five seconds of keeping the ball and allowing others to support and taking pressure off the midfield and defence.  If a striker can't keep the ball under control, possession is lost and suddenly you're having to defend again.  And again.  And again.   You're then going to concede goals.  It's simple.

Don't mistake this as me being over-critical of the Fulham display really, as it was a decent point, not too bad a performance and Blues are looking more solid again.  However, I do think that it's now the time that we need to start looking forward a little and at how we can improve.  There's no doubt about the key area in this regard - let's hope that it's not only been identified by the powers that be, but that's it's going to be rectified.