Don’t be sad because it’s over, people. Smile because it happened. Fulham bowed out of the Carabao Cup, all good things must come to an end but Cam won’t look back in anger.
We will dream again
Conflicting emotions are present throughout this article because as this draw is effectively a defeat, a so close but yet so far scenario, I’m torn between what I should and shouldn’t feel, however what we cannot discount or discredit is the gripping journey that led us to our first domestic semi-final in 22 years, and the wonder that grew at every single step along the way.
The anticipation heading into our all-or-nothing encounter with Liverpool evoked feelings that I personally haven’t known since 2010’s Europa League semi-final second-leg against Hamburg, a game that shaped my adoration of our beautiful football club and all that it traditionally stands for. We’ve had stomach churning finals at Wembley in Championship Play-offs, FA Cup quarter-final controversy but there’s something spectacular about nights under the lights and the grandest auditorium English football has to offer and Wednesday was no different. In fact, it was exceptional.
I couldn’t care less if the flags were last-minute Happy Shopper specials, once everyone had safely entered the stadium all that the eye could see was a shimmering ocean of black and white, the Hammersmith End was on its feet and it remained so for the duration, Johnny-on-the-spot, and the noise that washed across the Cottage was deafening and constant. It wasn’t meant to be, we’d been built-up for inevitable heartbreak but even in the pain of what could’ve been, I am still immensely proud of the boys that wear our famous jersey because they really do care about the betterment of our club, and what they’ve achieved under Marco’s command in two-and-a-half years proves that we are indeed progressing.
Perhaps we could’ve turned the screw earlier than we did, maybe our squad depth simply wasn’t skilled enough to carry us over the line but we have to have perspective here, and there are factors we also have to be conscious of. Liverpool are the country’s in-form force, even without Mohamed Salah and Trent Alexander Arnold et al. They’re equipped with world-class superstars that have gone the distance in some of the planet’s most taxing and testing competitions and we gave them a bloody good run for their money.
It wasn’t a humiliation, it wasn’t one-way traffic, Jurgen Klopp’s table-toppers didn’t have it all their own way and while our own football jumped between emphatic and pathetic over 180-plus minutes, while we could’ve capitalised on key opportunities in both legs, we went down swinging and against one of the deadliest teams on the planet, that is all we could’ve hoped for once the the teams were pulled out of the hat.
I won’t remember this Carabao Cup campaign as a failure. Our imaginations ran wild, knock-out delirium was rife and by way of nail-biting penalty shoot-outs and stress-free victories over East Anglian challengers we were labelled contenders, one of four that could lay claim to silverware and though we couldn’t slay the giant but we didn’t suffer.
We have come a long, long way from early exit upsets on the outskirts of Gatwick airport. Clubs like Fulham simply aren’t meant to rub shoulders with footballing royalty when trophies are up for grabs, we either fall flat on our faces or we dig our own graves, but this team of Marco Silva’s is learning how to rattle cages, it isn’t foolproof but it is evolving and if it continues to take me back to the boy I was 15 years ago, awestruck and astonished as my heroes wrote history and defied odds, then I am going to back this project no matter what because it is worth believing in. We will dream again.
Wilson’s drive and determination
As soon as Bobby De Cordova-Reid was replaced by Harry Wilson, Fulham slipped out of neutral and the wheels were set in motion. The Welsh winger’s flitted in and out of Silva’s starting selection this season, it’s thought he’s much more effective off the bench and on Wednesday evening, that particular opinion was fully validated.
Against his boyhood club, Wilson hit the turf with a purpose, with next to no time at all to influence things he made his introduction count, and his intent along the left was instantly appreciated. Jetting along the touch line, Wilson approached the by-line and in stealth bomber style, he screeched inside Conor Bradley and pressed the little red button. He manoeuvred into clear space, his cross ricocheted into the danger zone and that is how we fired ourselves back into contention, through drive and determination.
We could’ve done with Wilson’s incision from the off, never mind from the dugout. He was direct in possession, supportive off the ball and with fresh legs, he didn’t stop for anything. There’s something extra about Harry, he may not impress on every outing but there’s an edge to him, an energy that’s so unique and for 25 minutes or so we saw it in full flow, and it couldn’t have been more needed.
Up top Diop
Who wouldn’t thought they man we really needed up top was Issa Diop, the man who sounded a spirited yet futile fight back from the Whites. If our recognised strikers can’t tuck it away, our marauding centre-back certainly can and as Diop charged onto Wilson’s deflected cross, he readjusted his posture to divert the equaliser. The improvisation of a proper No.9, exacted by a defender prone to self-inflicted calamity.
To even have the inclination to bomb forward is bold, it’s gutsy, and possibly a bit stupid, but given his result-defining mistake at Stamford Bridge, it is his atonement and it was received well by all in attendance of a Fulham persuasion. Issa wanted to force the issue, to change the narrative and even if his leveller stood for nothing come the final whistle, he was committed to the task at hand at both ends of the park and that cannot be denied.
He studied Darwin Nunez’s movement at the back and at nose bleed altitude in the opposing penalty area, he got in on the act with certainty and if Liverpool’s Uruguayan gunman needs a few golden pointers, Diop’s the guy with the unexpected poise the “shit Andy Carroll” has always longed for.
Disadvantaged by nerves
It took 70-odd minutes for us to suddenly warm to proceedings but before that, as a collective, we were a nervous wreck and tensions were palpable. Nobody in black and white really wanted to show for the ball, particularly on the counter, and as soon as we retrieved possession, we gifted it straight back to Liverpool via panicked passes, heavy first touches and scrambled composure. We just couldn’t make things stick, Andreas Pereira and Bobby Decordova-Reid were particularly thriftless with the ball and it’s a mystery as to how they both remained in the pitch for as long as they did.
Balls came to feet and they’d instantly rid possession without design, they tend to be useful distributors but the magnitude of the occasion clearly got to them, but they weren’t the only culprits. Antonee Robinson was troubled defensively, he chased shadows as Harvey Elliott periodically cut the USMNT left-back adrift and he was frequently overpowered whilst attempting to shield possession. In the same breath, Raul Jimenez was ineffective up top, too.
He couldn’t wait to move possession on with no thought or concept, he was held on a tight leash by a scrawny teenager and for a striker of his size and stature, he was ridiculously easy to contain. Being subbed off for Rodrigo Muniz really isn’t a good look, especially at the last chance saloon stage of the game and if that’s to be the extent of our depth in the final third after January, we’re in for some of the most tedious months we’ve probably ever encountered in the top-flight.
This wasn’t supposed to be a finger pointing exercise, while we eventually retaliated the lads were visibly off it for the majority of the game and I guess with experience, if we’re wanting to go even further in future tournaments – maybe even this season in the FA Cup – we have to cope with pressures and expectations better because teams like Liverpool do not wilt at the business end of major tournaments, they thrive and rarely falter.
It’s unchartered territory for the lads, two-legged semi finals don’t rock up at the Cottage every year like they seem to for the Reds but we now know what it takes to be there, and if there’s a next time very, very soon, we’ll be wise to channel nerves to our advantage, rather than to the opposite effect which ultimately stung our hopes of jumping the final hurdle at home.
One lapse seals fate
The sequence that led to the tie’s defining goal, the first of the evening, is not for the faint hearted. Liverpool took full advantage of unperceptive ball and an uncharacteristically limp wrist and what’s more damning is that from that moment onward, the Whites actually defended commendably to limit the visitors. One lapse at the back sealed our fate and it furthers the cruel reality that a date with destiny under the world famous arch in HA9 simply wasn’t to be for the Whites.
I have no idea how Luis Diaz managed to chest the ball down above Timothy Castagne’s ahead but our Belgian right-back barely left the ground as the Colombian winger soared, it’s almost as though he didn’t notice Diaz whatsoever and as he back peddled, he obviously lost track of the ball and that spelled serious trouble. It was unsightly from Timothy, he wasn’t aware of the risk of not contesting aerially and though Tosin attempted to block Diaz’s shot, the ball squirmed towards the bottom left corner and Bernd Leno is also culpable.
Leno should’ve smothered that effort, it’s a strike he’d usually deflect or claim without an issue but our German stopper was unresponsive. He plunged awkwardly to his right, he wasn’t in control as he clawed at the ball and while his palm made contact, it wasn’t solid enough to flick danger wide of the mark. If he’d have dealt with that, who knows what could’ve happened but that is what we’ve been reduced to, again. Empty could could’ve, as it was in the first leg. A comedy of errors, but there’s nothing remotely funny about it and when we needed a pinch of good fortune, Lady Luck just wasn’t on our side and Sky eventually got the final they were drooling over.