They didn’t call it a lap of honour. They called it a lap of appreciation. I don’t need to tell you why.
As the match wore on and news of Spurs’ defeat at Burnely seeped in via the 3G airwaves, some people in the crowd began to gloat, and laugh at our rivals falling short of third place. There’s no honour in that. I’d describe my reaction to us edging them to automatic Champions League qualification as one of relief, tinged with a little bit of shame that we let them get so close.
The match itself was something of a formality. Fulham fielded a collection of reserves and first-team players whose kit masked several layers of protective cotton wool. Their minds were on Wednesday’s Europa League Final, as were their arms, legs, and just about everything else.
Proof of their disinterest was stamped all over the opening goal. The usually ultra-reliable Mark Schwarzer miscontrolled a backpass, giving the ball straight to Andrey Arshavin, who wasted no time providing efficient punishment. He stepped inside the goalkeeper, and with Robin van Persie waiting for a pass, the Russian disguised a thumped shot in to the net from a tight angle. It was his twelfth goal of the season. Despite his patchy form, that’s a record of better than one goal for every three starts.
Arshavin and Van Persie provided a tandem threat throughout the game. When Adebayor left many expected them to be our principal attacking players, but injuries to both players have meant that they only really played together with any regularity at the start of the season. Note: that’s when we were at our most potent.
It was Van Persie who scored the second. Theo Walcott was played in behind, and when Schwarzer atoned for his mistake with a stunning tip on to the bar, the Dutchman was fortunate enough to see the ball bounce back in to his path for a tap-in.
A Walcott cross created the third too. The ball ricocheted off Chris Smalling and Emmanuel Eboue before Chris Baird obligingly poked the ball in to his own top corner. 3-0 at half-time, and third place assured.
Van Persie almost scored a carbon copy of his first in the second half, but was denied by the post, before Carlos Vela added the cherry to what was otherwise a rather stodgy cake. When Vela was put through one-on-one with Schwarzer, it quickly became clear no-one had told him this wasn’t the Carling Cup, as he showed remarkable composure to clip a sumptuous chip over the Aussie goalkeeper. He ran to celebrate with the departing Fran Merida – despite this outrageous display of ability, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see Vela join his friend in La Liga next season.
At full-time, the players embarked on their celebratory appreciative lap. Despite not being included in the matchday squad, Manuel Almunia and Eduardo were both there, showing no visible signs of injury. Mikael Silvestre pointedly clapped his goodbyes, and William Gallas was conspicuous by his absence.
Third place and a Champions League quarter-final feels about right for this squad. The next few weeks will be spent analysing why that is, and what we need to do to push on to the next level.