West Brom 1 Fulham 1 match report: Goalkeeper’s error denies Felix Magath opening victory

Fulham’s new German coach sees promise but Stekelenburg falters after performing heroics

Hawthorns

Not for the first time rhetoric met with reality and came off worse. Felix Magath had enough wind left in him after the blow of conceding a late equaliser to bluster on about the coming win in the next match – “It’s only Chelsea” – but already you sense perspective settling on his challenge at Fulham.

Pre-dawn runs in the forests of deepest Hammersmith are all well and good but offer nil protection against the unscripted cock-up. Maarten Stekelenberg had performed heroically in the Fulham goal to protect a precious lead, made three outstanding saves to deny the home side a deserved equaliser in a frantic second half. 

Then with four minutes remaining you could almost hear the life drain from his lungs as he allowed Matej Vydra’s shot to squirm under his body. He stretched out an arm behind him to swat the ball away as it dribbled towards the line but was a fraction too late.

There was some attempted banter about goal-line technology and how it would have worked in German interests had it come half a century earlier, but it was largely lost on Magath. “The players were disappointed,” he said. “We came close to three points. There was a lot of fight from two teams battling against relegation. This is what I want from my team. We were good in the first half but made too many mistakes in the second.

“I would prefer to win but we did quite well. We have to work step by step. It was the first match so I am satisfied. We looked like a team. There is just not enough confidence to play for 90 minutes. The longer the game goes on the further back we go. We were close to a win. The next game will be a win. It’s only against Chelsea.”

Is there an echo in the room? It might have been Rene Meulensteen talking, the same rallying call to better days being on the horizon. Pep Mel has been singing that same song since he arrived at The Hawthorns in the second week of January.

The Spaniard is referred to as Peach Melba in these parts. One assumes it is not a term of endearment. He has averaged a point a fortnight in the six weeks he has been in his post, so the draw was perhaps no surprise.

He accepts that he needs a win. Though this felt like one after trailing for 86 minutes, moving West Bromwich one rung up the table, it was a missed opportunity. The arrival of the Premier League’s bottom side, a team under new management to boot, represented the best chance he has had to register that first victory.

After the goal the West Bromwich players sprinted back to the halfway line celebrating as if they had won the Premier League. You never know, Mel remarked, it might just be the goal that keeps his team in it. “A point is a point. It might be an important point,” he said.

“Before the match in my head was three points. The first half my team was too open. It is a problem. At  half-time we spoke about this. I changed the system and it was  better for us. When we lose the ball the players are too open [spread across the pitch]. We need to work on this. It was the same in the last matches against Everton, Liverpool and Chelsea. It has been a long month.

“We need to win. The players need that for their heads, to smile and to work well. And for the fans, too. We had a lot of chances in the second half to win. The best player on the pitch was the Fulham goalkeeper.”

The most impressive outfield  player was also in a Fulham shirt. Lewis Holtby is just the kind of  nimble presence West Bromwich lack, a diminutive dynamo who knits the play together. Magath singled him out for special praise,  particularly for the way that he  dictated the flow of the game in the first half. So good was Holtby you half fancied that his air shot that  immediately preceded the Fulham goal was really intended as a pass to Ashkan Dejagah.

It was a smart finish and no more than the visitors deserved. Magath comes with a fearsome reputation, a combustible maverick with, as far as training methods go anyway, an interesting line in spontaneity. Given some of the wilder claims it was a surprise not to see Fulham doing press-ups in the centre circle before kick-off.

That Fulham ran out of steam will doubtless re-inforce the philosophy that he is known to adhere to,  inviting more Sunday sessions by the Thames. West Bromwich, too, have work to do to convince that they are good enough to escape from  relegation. Draws from the jaws of defeat are not going not be enough to sustain them.

Line-ups:

West Bromwich (4-1-3-2): Foster; Jones (Anichebe, 44), McAuley, Olsson, Ridgewell; Mulumbu; Morrison, Brunt, Amalfitano; Berahino (Vydra, 75), Thievy (Gera, h-t).

Fulham (4-4-2): Stekelenburg; Riether, Hangeland, Heitinga, Amorebieta (Riese, 52); Dejagah, Parker, Sidwell, Richardson (Burn, 70); Holtby, Rodallega (Mitroglou, 61).

Referee: Mike Dean

Man of the match: Holtby (Fulham)

Match rating: 7/10

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