Paul Tierney blew his whistle, the ball fell from the sky and was snatched by Tim Ream, making history by breaking the World Cup for the first time in Premier League history. The final game before the six-week shutdown was a delightful romp, culminating in the most familiar allusions to the last-minute Manchester United winner, an 18-year-old substitute Alejandro Garnacho.
A clear evening by the Thames. Bells of All Saints greet the crowd from Bishops Park. Smoke rising from fast-food vans into cold fresh air. The trees are an autumn gold. In the morning a light mist had fallen over the river, perfect for old servants to cycle down the holy communion road. It was the kind of November day that has so evoked Craven Cottage trips since Fulham first became home in 1896. -off, the World Cup would be starting.
Of all the issues raised by this World Cup, perhaps the least important is the way it disrupted the rhythm of the European seasons. There are even suggestions that some teams may not take the Carabao Cup completely seriously this season. Still, it had an impact, as the number of players who didn’t make it to the World Cup or were in danger of missing out makes it clear.
Never before has there been a gap of less than 16 days between the Champions League/European Cup final and the start of the World Cup; because less than seven days between the end of local seasons and the start of the tournament inevitably increases the perception of football as a brutal treadmill, the endless, accelerating succession fixture after fixture, and can only increase the problem of fatigue.
The result was a distinct feeling about Fulham on the last day of the term, one that somehow lacked the dreadful seriousness of most matchdays. Uniform guidelines may have been relaxed, some junior classes brought in games, there were quarrels over a video recorder working in the staff room and the tape of Tom Hanks’ Big movie, and no one bothered too much with the boring stuff. like defensive structure or playing safe pass. The result was a very open and thoroughly engaging game that was swept from end to end with grueling intensity.
There was absolutely no obvious sign of players withdrawing. Nor was there any suggestion that the absence of five players who could play key roles in the World Cup (Cristiano Ronaldo, Raphaël Varane, Antony and Diogo Dalot for United and Aleksandar Mitrovic for Fulham) was anything but good. but the shadows they cast contributed to an air of vague abandonment. Britain’s third lionheart, Harry Maguire, should have at least been fully rested, having spent the evening in the bench; He has only played 90 minutes of Premier League football in the last two months.
Still, it was a game of results. The win brought United one game to three points closer to fourth-placed Tottenham; The gap between the Champions League qualifiers looks manageable.
Ronaldo’s absence is less and less worrying for United. United have lost half of their Premier League games starting this season, averaging just one point per game rather than 2.2 without him. United’s opener was well built, proof of the kind of football Erik ten Hag wanted to instill, and the reason why he avoided recruiting Brazil’s first-choice midfield couple Christian Eriksen alongside Casemiro. The Brazilian dispossessed Tom Cairney 14 minutes later, Eriksen running behind Anthony Martial and sliding diagonally across Bruno Fernandes’ back post before advancing.
The kidnapped player was Dalot, the combination of Willian and Antonee Robinson has plagued Tyrell Malacia on the Fulham left repeatedly. Of course, that’s where the Fulham equalizer came into play, as the duo got together to lounge in Cairney for the return of United old boy Dan James, who had only been on the field for three minutes.
He still had almost half an hour plus injury time to play at that point, and for a time it looked more likely for Fulham to score, until the arrival of Garnacho gave the United offense some impetus. But in the third minute of the added three minutes, United caught the winner, the Argentinian came in from the left, exchanged passes with Eriksen and poked Bernd Leno in the finish.
And then, poof, it’s gone, the excitement subsides, the stands are empty, the floodlights are turned off to make room for Fifa’s embarrassing spree in Qatar not to rekindle until Boxing Day.