Fulham 2-1 Shakhtar Donetsk

February 19, 2010

What. A. Game. This is what the Europa League is all about and why it is ridiculous that so many people dismiss it as a ‘mickey mouse’ competition.

I had previously struggled to concentrate at work in the hours building up to the game, viewing TIFF and getting excited. The pre-match pints calmed me to a certain extent but I was sure the game was going to be a cracker and I was not disappointed. Fulham got off to an excellent start throwing men forward and could have taken the lead seconds into the game when Brede Hangeland peeled away at the back post and hit a bullet header at goal, only for the Shakhtar keeper to pull off a fantastic fingertip save. This early incisive action lifted the Fulham crowd and within minutes the pressure had paid off. Danny Murphy fed the ball to the feet of Bobby Zamora who in turn flicked to ball into the path of a rampaging Zoltan Gera to slide beneath the keeper from the left hand side of the box. Yes, the keeper should have done better, but it was a nice move finished off decisively, and you could not begrudge Fulham the lead.

Then the match started to change. Shakhtar found their feet and soon their midfield were zipping the ball about and Fulham were left chasing shadows.  The Brazilian midfielders were technically excellent and they teased Fulham by passing the ball around the edge of the area, looking for an opening. When Fulham did get the ball, the lack of width from the fullbacks was crippling (even though Stephen Kelly put in one hell of a defensive performance) and Fulham reverted to knocking it long. This would have been fine but Zamora is not the best in the air and he struggled to assert his dominance. Fulham were looking shaky with long periods spent chasing Shakhtar. Eventually the equaliser came. Funnily enough not from lots of patient buildup play but courtesy of a turnover in the midfield and some quick thinking by Ilsinho who slotted an inch perfect pass into the path of Luis Adriano, the prolific striker rounded a floundering Mark Schwarzer and passed the ball into the empty net – deadly and decisive. I dont like to lay blame at players doors for goals but I did wonder why Schwarzer raced off his line as Adriano was being forced wide by a combo of the speed of the ball and the covering Aaron Hughes.

The goal quieted the crowd and soon it looked like Fulham just needed to get to half time. I will admit to fearing the worst as the half time whistle blew and prayed for a ‘Roy Hodgson special’ teamtalk which would motivate the players and get things going in the second half. And I wasn’t disappointed. Fulham came out with much more purpose and actually played the ball along the floor. The crowd started singing and suddenly it was an even contest once again. Fulham were probing and it was the outstanding Zamora who would create a piece of magic to lift everyone inside Craven Cottage. Hangeland slid through an excellent pass to the feet of Gera, who repaid Bobby’s assist from the first half with a marvellous backheel into the path of Zamora, this season brimming with confidence, who powered a stunning Tony-Yeboahesq screamer off the underside of the bar and into the net. This lifted to roof off of the Cottage and a rather bemused appearing Zamora looked as though he didn’t really know what to do with himself.

Two more Fulham chances shortly followed, firstly Gera testing the keeper with a decent header and then Bobby Zamora flicking the ball wide having lost his man at the far post. The game then swung back Shakhtars way in the final 10 minutes. Fulham seemed content to sit back and prevent being hit on the break, a la the Roma game, and Shakhtar took advantage again spraying excellent passes both short and long about the pitch. Mark Schwarzer came to Fulham’s rescue at the death as he produced a fine save, palming to ball wide of the post to deny Costa. Cue me jumping out of my seat and screaming like a wildman a good second before everyone else, much to the amusement of my friends.

Lots of talk after the game was of how good Shakhtar were and what a tough match the second leg will be. However, and perhaps this is my continued sense of elation from the result, I am quietly confident that we can get a result in Ukraine. A few reasons:

1) Whilst they were excellent passers of the ball, they went sideways a lot of the time and for me, did not have too many good chances or even many shots on target. Whilst at home they will no doubt be good,  we have a very good defence that will have more than a chance of strangling their creativity.

2) The Full Back Situation- If we can get Konch back for the trip next week then I think it will transform Fulham. Not that Kelly played badly, just that because he was on the wrong side he struggled to get  forward. I would even consider putting him on the right for the return leg ahead of Baird.

3) We are not a physical team, yet we won the physical battle in the midfield by a mile. By the end of the game they didn’t want to put the ball into the box in the air and this limited what they could do. In Donetsk, we can hustle and unsettle them and attempt to hit them on the break.

Whatever the result next Thursday, Fulham v Shakhtar Donetsk will definitely go down as a great game in the history of Fulham F.C.

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