Tigana's problem

Monday 3 December 2001

Never mind the appearance of an 11 million quid striker which seemed to be occupying everyone else's mind down at the Cottage. For Jean Tigana, the continued absence of a player who cost Fulham even more than Robbie Fowler was of rather more pressing import.

Steve Marlet, all £11.5m of him, has been languishing with a knee injury and, after a game which Fulham largely dominated against their rather more vaunted opponents, Tigana was obviously not alone in wondering how different it might have been had the club's record signing been available to provide the sort of cutting edge so evidently lacking amid this unappetising Sunday lunchtime fare.

His team, reckoned Tigana, are getting there. Their defence? Solid. Their midfield? Combative. Their style? Well, they still try to play the gamewith the sort of work ethic and elan which reflects their manager's philosophy. But their problem? "The last 40 yards," sighed Tigana.

They needed to be able to introduce Marlet's power and pace, something which has yet to be properly unveiled at The Cottage in the Frenchman's four Premiership starts, once Barry Hayles, whose best chances were squandered when he lost his footing on the damp pitch, and Louis Saha, who still seems short on confidence, got no change from Rio Ferdinand's wellmarshalled defence.

How they could have done with the sort of rich striking resources which offered Leeds manager David O'Leary, in a bid to accommodate Fowler, the luxury of playing Alan Smith in a right-sided midfield role where he looked quite lost. Fulham, in contrast, had no alternatives.

"I've tried (to find an on-loan striker) but it's not easy," opined Tigana. "But I think Marlet will be back by the end of this month."

Five more Premiership games in December, three eminently winnable against Everton, Middlesbrough and Charlton - no, make that four now that Manchester United look so wretched - could make this a pivotal month for Fulham.

After an unbeaten six-match Premiership run, are they going to push on into the upper reaches or graze in mid-table anonymity?

Tigana is a man of few words, but yesterday they were bullish enough to suggest he still believes it can be the former.

He said: "The team has progressed, but it's not enough yet. We need more and for the future I'm confident because we have many good players."

Okay, so yesterday's was such a scrappy affair - you could almost hear the pay-per-view punters screaming for a refund of their fivers from their armchairs - that it may not have been the most ideal match to judge them.

Certainly, Leeds, forced into playing Danny Mills at centre-back and Smith in midfield because of injuries to Dominic Matteo, Lee Bowyer and Eirik Bakke, don't often play quite as badly as this.

Yet there could only be encouragement from the fact that, on the rare occasion that more than a handful of passes were strung together, it was Fulham who played the football.

For all the fond image of them being artists rather than artisans, what was most impressive was the way they pressed Leeds in possession and so often outfought them.

In Steed Malbranque, they had the best player on the field, a midfielder whose delicate touch at pace made the efforts of David Batty and Smith look laboured in comparison, and in Alain Goma, a central defender who looked as accomplished as Ferdinand. Yet, still, there was a sense of frustration in watching their trademark short and sharp passing patterns lead up so many blind alleys.

Their performance was epitomised by Luis Boa Morte, who was as brilliant one minute as he seemed headless the next. Still, it was the Portuguese who came closest to sealing victory with the shot which squirmed beneath Nigel Martyn, only for Gary Kelly to spare his blushes by clearing off the line.

Two fine saves from the England man, though, did keep out a John Collins free-kick and a Goma header and lead to the unmistakable feel that here were two points lost, rather than one gained. That in itself bodes well because if the Cottage faithful could leave feeling aggrieved about failing to turn over supposed title contenders, Fuham must be moving in the right direction.

As for Fowler's much-hyped bow, it was as muted as all the pre-match fanfare had been deafening, yet there were enough quiet glimpses of his quality - he might even have snatched a winner with four minutes left when his close-range volley almost squeezed beneath Edwin van der Sar - to persuade O'Leary that, given a decent run of matches, he can recapture the sharpness which should still make him a gilt-edged asset at Elland Road.

Still, it didn't stop the lads on the terraces taunting Fowler with cries of "What a waste of money."

All good fun, but this was the sort of afternoon they'd have loved to see the spice boy out there in Fulham white.