Posts Tagged ‘Europa League’

Expecting the Unexpected

May 16, 2010

In Michael Lewis’s excellent book ‘Moneyball: The art of winning an unfair game’ there is a section that describes the motives behind supporting a perennial underdog rather than a perennial winner. I scoured the book for the exact quote and couldn’t find it, but it goes something along the lines of ‘When you support a big team, the joy comes from expecting to win, when you support an underdog, the joy comes from the unexpected’. This is worth keeping in mind after Fulham’s amazing run to the Europa League final.

Part of the joy of the Hodgson era at Fulham has been the unexpected. The ‘Great Escape’ Season looked to be Fulham’s last in the premier league until Hodgson unexpectedly turned it around in the last few games.  Last season we were treated to the unexpected sight of a Fulham side not shipping goals and eventually reaching the heights of 7th spot and a place in the Europa League. This season has revolved around Fulham’s unexpected run in the Europa League mixed with some enjoyable, but unexpected, home wins (Man Utd and Liverpool to name but two). Ultimately it is the unexpected that has made supporting Fulham over the past 2 1/2 years so damn enjoyable.

The Europa League final in Hamburg may have ended in disappointment but ultimately I think the sense of pride and general enjoyment from the whole competition will overtake any lingering feelings of frustration and unhappiness. I was certainly pretty crushed when Diego Forlan snuck in Athletico Madrids AET winner with little/no time for a Fulham response. The thoughts of a missed chance and the idea that never again would Fulham have such a chance for a major piece of silverware clouded my mind on the oh-so long coach trip back home.

However, if we look at what this competition was all about for Fulham then we get some perspective. Pretty much all of the games up until the semi-final were an adventure where the only thing that mattered was the journey, new experiences and the moments. To me that is what Fulham is all about. If I had wanted to spend my life bathing in the glory of my team I would have chosen a Manchester United or Arsenal to follow not Fulham. Up until the semi-final the enjoyment of something new was driving the Fulham  faithful forward, but this all changed at the semi-final stage. Suddenly it looked as though Fulham might be able to go all of the way. The mood changed completely and I spent the majority of the Hamburg second leg feeling ill and incredibly nervous. Again for the Final the mood was more one of a tense nervousness rather than an enjoyment of the unexpected. We had moved from the motivation of the underdog closer to the motivation of the favourite, not completely by any means, but  certainly closer. This made the subsequent disappointment far more crushing than it ought to have been.

Now when I look back on this competition I am pretty amazed. Putting on a defensive masterclass when knocking out Shakhtar. Beating Juventus 4-1 when Fulham were on the verge of exiting the competition. Outplaying Wolfsburg over two legs. Beating Hamburg in a semi-final of a European competition with the crowd seemingly helping the team to an unforgettable win by creating an unforgettable atmosphere. And of course pushing Athletico Madrid all of the way in a European final. Pride is the only word that can describe Fulham’s achievements. I have never felt as attached to a group of players as the current Fulham squad. I felt more upset for them at the final whistle on Wednesday night than for myself, the club and the other fans combined. Unfortunately the completely unexpected didn’t happen this season, but it came very close to happening and that has been the thrill of supporting Fulham.

—————–

A few comments from my trip to Hamburg. The whole trip was enjoyable despite the result. I feel very lucky to of had the opportunity to support my team in a European final. The atmosphere along the Reeperbahn was fantastic and the Athletico fans were friendly and loud. A personal highlight was the trip to the stadium. I somehow managed to get into the underground at exactly the right time to get an early train to the ground, surrounded by hundreds of others all in a jovial atmosphere. The sound of chanting echoing off of the enclosed spaces of the station and then the train will live long in the memory. Hopefully Fulham will have another chance to visit Hamburg in years to come.

Advertisements

Hamburg 0-0 Fulham: A Tale of Two Defences

April 23, 2010

It just seems that this team is built for 2-legged European ties. Our away form in the premier league often comes under scrutiny and criticism (and rightly so) but under the bright lights of European competition it is the perfect remedy. Fulham may not play sparkling football away from home but it sure is effective. Only one European away performance can be described as poor during this campaign  and that was the 3-1 loss to Juventus.  Other than that night in Turin (which of course was gloriously rectified a week later) Fulham have been more than solid away from home. An initial draw against CSKA Sofia  with almost a complete second team, being robbed in Rome by poor officiating and a fantastic away victory in Basel rounded out a good away showing in the group stages.  A phenomenal defensive performance at Shakthar, a victory against German champs Wolfsburg and now a good scoreless draw at Hamburg added to the feeling of improved away performances. Why is it so different from the premier league? I guess that when we have a game plan (Must win or Must Draw) we are good at sticking to it. And of course Roy Hodgson is a God of European football.

As for the match last night. Not a huge amount to discuss other than to pile admiration onto the likes of Schwarzer, Gera et al. An early Baird mistake meant that hearts were in mouths as Ruud Van Nistelrooy bore down on goal, only for his composure to weaken and Schwarzer to collect the ball at his feet. Other than that chance, the first half passed everyone by with Hamburg restricted to long range shots that rarely tested Schwarzer.  Jonathan Pitroipa looked dangerous but had little end product, and other than the worryingly poor passing from Fulham there was not much of note.

As the second half started it was noticeable that  Zamora was struggling, an Achilles injury acting up and with him unable to make his usual powerful runs Fulham were unable to find an out ball. Hodgson dragged off the limping Zamora and brought on Fulham hero Clint Dempsey. Surprisingly this made Fulham much more dangerous in attack with Dempsey’s clever runs irritating the Hamburg defence Fulham started to look the better team. I noticed that now that Zamora had come off, Davies was spending a lot more time in a really central position with Konchesky making more probing runs down the left. Perhaps it wasn’t the 4-6-0 formation that many are predicting will be the future of football, but with 6 midfielders on the pitch for Fulham, you cannot get much closer to it than that.

HSV, to their credit, came back at Fulham and a couple of testing long range drives were dealt with magnificently by Schwarzer. Petric had come on by this stage but although he brought more of a goal threat to the HSV team I felt that they lacked something  without Guerrero ‘in the hole’. As the game drew to a close, Fulham looked to be comfortably seeing out an excellent draw. With the Fulham support in good voice, the final whistle blew and Fulham are one step closer to a European final. Wow.

p.s. A quick word for the Ref, who I thought was outstanding. He hilariously told players of both sides to stand up when the were tackled and kept the game flowing. All of the yellows were warranted. It is a pity he won’t be refereeing the return leg.

Fulham 2-1 Wolfsburg

April 2, 2010

What a game football is. A few weeks ago against Shakhtar Donetsk, the final whistle at the cottage was greeted with a huge roar of appreciation and people bouncing around in near delirium, but last night, despite the exact same result almost the opposite was true. I am complicit in this as anyone else,  as a late Alexander Madlung goal deflated the crowd and took the shine of what was another night of enthralling European football at the cottage. Yet this was still a good result and leaves Fulham with an excellent chance of heading through to the semi-finals.

Fulham have already been nearly written off by both the BBC and The Guardian:

Fulham’s late lapse could cost them dearly, but Wolfsburg were rewarded for their persistence in the final 10 minutes and will now be confident that they can progress to the semi-finals.

and

Possibly. But the feeling lingers that in Lower Saxony, in front of their own crowd, Wolfsburg might just bring to a close Fulham’s remarkable run in this competition, which began last July.

We have been here before havent we? After the Shakhtar game, many were questioning how Fulham would hold up away from home, and look where we are now! I am remaining optimistic about the return leg in Wolfsburg for several reasons:

1) We actually won last night meaning that Wolfsburg have to score. Now they have scored the most goals in the Bundesliga, but looked fairly average last night. I thought Dzeko looked dangerous, and they will probably score, but the emphasis is on them to create, something they struggled to do against a solid Fulham defence last night.

2) Basle, Shakhtar, Juventus. All teams with excellent home records, all teams we scored against away from home. It is not like Fulham have never scored away from home in the Europa league.

3) Wolfsburg have an average/iffy defence that Zamora was really testing last night. Wolfsburg have also conceded the second highest number of goals in the Bundesliga. I can see us getting a goal there.

As for the game itself, I would call it interesting rather than a classic. The first half was scrappy and Wolfsburg seemed content to sit back and try not to concede. A few half chances were created for both sides with the most notable coming at the end of the first half. Duff cut inside running full pace toward the Putney end, evaded two defenders before laying the ball off to Dempsey who hit the ball just wide.

As the second half began, Fulham looked the more dangerous team. Things started to gel and the crowd was lifted as Fulham began to commit men forward. The goals, when the came, were a huge relief. Both goals were counter-attack style moves that caught the Wolfsburg defence in flux and gives me hope that a similar goal c0uld be pilfered in a weeks time. The ball was won in midfield by Gera who hit a nice long pass for Zamora which he  controlled  well. A gut-busting run down then right by Duff then pulled the Wolfsburg defence further out of shape and allowed Zamora the time and space to place the ball in the back of the net from 20yds with an excellent curling finish that left Benaglio, the Wolfsburg keeper, flailing. The Cottage erupted and then relief was palpable.

And the first goal was quickly followed by a second. Again the ball was won in the midfield with Wolfsburg committing men forward, and Murphy found Zamora. Spotting Duff sprinting into the box, Zamora then laid the ball off for Duff to slam home with a unstoppable shot. Amazing. No-one was expecting this! Wolfsburgs response was to get forward and pressurize Fulham as they searched for the elusive away goal. Unfortunately it eventually came as the clock wound down. A Wolfsburg corner was taken short, catching Fulham unawares. Misimovic then had all the time in the world to pick out Madlung who powered a header into the back of the net. Damn. When the final whistle blew, there was a sense of disappointment around the stadium. At least the return leg will be interesting I suppose!

The Post-Juventus Comedown

March 28, 2010

There can be no doubt that Fulham’s amazing comeback against Juventus will go down as one of the best games in the history of Fulham FC. It was a truly magical night that I was proud to witness first hand. When the season draws to a close, people will look back and consider the Juventus game a truly great night in a pretty special season. Right now, however, it looks a little different.

Three games after Fulham inserted themselves into European folklore,  things are not looking so rosy. A defeat to Man City may have been expected, but this was followed with two results which are more difficult to simply laugh off. Being knocked out of the FA cup by Tottenham is not something to be ashamed of, yet it still stung, especially since Fulham had effectively played them off the park at their own stadium in the first half. The loss to Hull on saturday stung also, but in a different way. This time Fulham had lost to a team struggling to perform with one of Football’s worst managers in charge. To add more misery, one of the goals was scored by former Fulham fan favourite and all round ‘cheeky chappy’ Jimmy Bullard.

But to look at the results in the above way neglects the subtleties of the recent run of poor results. Fulham could have drawn against City if Okaka had scored when through one on one. Fulham were undone against Tottenham by a decent delivery and a slice of luck. And against Hull, many key first teamers were rested for the upcoming clash with Wolfsburg on thursday night. The myopia of some fans is truly amazing. Before I get harassed as someone who won’t criticise Hodgson I would just like to point out a few things. Before the Man City game, fans were screaming for a full 2nd team to be played in order for the heroes from the Juventus game to be rested for the midweek FA Cup clash with Spurs. When this didn’t happen and Fulham subsequently lost both games, the message boards were full of ‘I would have liked to see Riise, he has always looked fantastic when brought on’ or ‘why is Roy so hesitant with his subs’ or ‘why is Kelly still playing’. A week after the Man City loss and some fans have produced a Fox News-like turnaround in opinion. When I logged on to one fan message board I was greeted with ‘Dikgacoi, Riise, (insert player name here) not good enough’ etc etc etc.  For me, the Hull game was almost a Hodgson riposte to the naysayers. I know that he would never select a team to prove people wrong and that the changes were with the Wolfsburg game in mind, but to me they seemed to make a statement. Don’t like Kelly? Lets see how you like Shorey on the right. Riise the best thing since sliced bread? Lets see how you like him in the premier league.

It is a fans job to be highly critical ( and I am as unreasonable as most at games) but I think we need to take a deep breath and look forward. This week we have a European Quarter Final against the reigning Bundesliga champions. If all does not go to plan and we are knocked out we still have some winnable games to look forward too and the fact that our premier league status is all but assured. Add to this that we might sneak into the Europa next season under the fair play banner and it is all looking a bit better.  This summer should be very interesting. I do not think that massive investment is needed. Fulham are in a funny position for a club of its size. There is a good squad that is full of players who have been here a few seasons and there is the feeling of stability that has perhaps not been here since Fulham’s entry into the top flight. If we can add a few smart signings then the squad will improve as former first teamers who are perhaps getting on a bit move into the squad (such as Danny Murphy)  and younger players arrive to take their place and strengthen the first team. Success (read: the victory over juventus)does a funny things to people. I have been as disappointed about the last week as the next man, but we need to ask ourselves why we follow Fulham keep our feet on the ground and try to enjoy what has been one of the most enjoyable and successful periods in the clubs history.

Fulham 4-1 Juventus

March 20, 2010

Unbelievable. I have only gotten round to writing up a match report now because I still can’t quite believe it. I keep finding myself thinking, wait a minute, we did beat Juventus and we did overturn a 3 goal deficit. Phenomenal.

The match itself was somewhat bizarre. Firstly, kickoff was at six meaning that there was a rush to get to the game itself. Having gotten there early, I sat with my brother soaking up what I thought would be our final European experience for who knows how long. As the clock ticked towards six and the stadium slowly filled, the anticipation amongst the fans built to a peak. By the time the players ran out, I was raring to go. Game on.

Or not. It is not easy to deflate an entire stadium during supposedly the biggest game of Fulham’s history, but Juventus did just that. A Salihamidzic cross was not cleared and Trezeguet applied a simple finish. Bugger. Oh well, I told myself, it has been fun.

But this is Fulham under Roy Hodgson, so there was no need to worry that Fulham would not at least put up a fight. With the crowd now beginning to rise from the deflation of the first Juve goal, that man Bobby Zamora struck. Shrugging off Cannavaro, he cushioned a ball suppied by Koncheksy off his chest, and powered it into the left hand corner of the net leaving Chimenti with no chance. Now it was game on.

With Craven Cottage rocking, the pressure appeared to be getting to even the most experienced of the Juve players. A smart flick-on by Bobby Zamora put Gera through, only for him to be pulled down by Cannavaro. A red card swiftly followed (slightly controversially) and all of a sudden hopes of a result gained momentum. Juventus were now without their talismanic skipper and their already patched up defence became even more shaky. Antonio Candreva, who had looked dangerous up until this point, was hauled off for Zdenek Grygera and it was advantage Fulham.  Zamora hit a peach of a free kick with his left foot but Chimenti was equal to the challenge and palmed the ball round the post for a corner. Two more chances followed in quick succession with Davies hitting the post from a free kick and Etuhu doing the same with a header. I have to admit, with both of these chanced gone I started to feel that this might be one of those days.

As half time approached, it was an excellent team move that secured a crucial second goal. Bobby Zamora (again) chipped the ball over a static Juve defence, Simon Davies hit a low cross into the six yard box and Zoltan Gera arrived with impeccable timing to apply the finish. It now seemed to me as though Fulham had all of the momentum and were going to do the unthinkable. I guess the best way to describe it is as if ‘the weight of history’ ( the arguement the Communists used to justify their movement) was behind Fulham. The guy next to me turned and said ‘we only need one more!’, ‘we can get two, C’mon Fulham!’ was my response.

As the second half started the crowd were really having an influence on the game. The Juventus players looked rattled and Fulham were taking control. It wasn’t long before another breakthrough came. Duff was released into the right hand side of the penalty area but his cross came off the arm of Diego. The referee pointed to the spot and Gera dutifully stepped up to take the kick. As the crowd held their breath, Gera dispatched the penalty, sending Chimenti the wrong way. The crowd erupted Fulham were suddenly very much favourites to win the tie. Whether this could happen in normal time was another matter.

After Gera’s goal, the game settled once again as Juventus struggled to hold on in order to force penalties. Hodgson then made the substitution which changed the match. With Juventus pinned in their own half, Hodgson brought off Stephen Kelly, who had an excellent match, for Clint Dempsey and shifted Simon Davies to right back. This gave Duff more attacking support and helped to really apply pressure to the left flank of Juventus.

But is was Clint Dempsey who was to make the difference with what can only be described as an outrageous goal.  Having controlled a pass from Etuhu with his back to goal, Dempsey turned and let fly with an angled chip from the edge of the 18 yard box.  The ball hung in the air for what seemed like an eternity before nestling into the top corner, over the head of an exasperated Chimenti. UNBELIEVABLE. The crowd erupted as Dempsey charged behind the goal, celebrating like a man possessed. With that goal, Dempsey had just inserted himself in Fulham folklore.

Nervous moments followed as a Juventus goal would have knocked Fulham out, but it was the visitors who lost their heads. Zebina saw red for a petulant kick on Duff in the corner and Felipe Melo was booked for a similar infringement . A succession of free kicks killed the game and as the whistle blew it hit home, Fulham were through.

Amazing, Fulham had not only beaten Juventus over two legs, but had done so by overcoming a 3 goal deficit. As I walked back to the station, tired and drunk on emotion, I passed an older couple who had been to the match. As I walked by, I overheard them saying ‘March 18th 2010, the night Fulham beat Juventus 4-1, and WE were there’. I turned round and shot them a huge smile, which was generously reciprocated. I too had been there. What a night.

Juventus 3-1 Fulham

March 12, 2010

It may be the rose tinted glasses that I can often be found to be wearing but I really don’t think that Juve were two goals better than Fulham last night. Yes, Juve probably deserved to win, but we certainly weren’t pinned back a la Shakhtar, and the game had more of an away game to a mid-table premier league side than last rounds of the Europa league feel to it. Fulham had lots of the ball, particularly in the second half, and if the defence had been up to their usual standards we would definitely still be very much in the tie.  As it is, Fulham have a mountain to climb, but we are at home and we might have Juve right where we want them, overconfident.

For an excellent match report here and here and highlights, if you can bear to watch, here.

Juventus are a huge team. The most successful team in Italian footballing history, with the largest support in Italy (not that you could tell from the crowd las night). Yet Fulham put in a battling display, even if the result was not particularly fantastic. Considering that Fulham were missing their captain and heartbeat of the midfield in Danny Murphy, our regular right back in John Paintsil, our regular striker in Andy Johnson and of course Clint Dempsey (who did make an appearance but has been out for a significant amount of time) this was a solid display. Add to this our left back only just returning from injury and it is quite impressive that we managed to go to Torino and get a goal. Two years ago we could never have dreamt of playing Juventus in the last 16 of the Europa Leauge, never mind doing it with half a squad of backup and reserve players. This is how far we have come.

I would almost say that it is a damning indictment of how far Juve have fallen in recent years, that a mid-level premier league club struggling with fatigue and injuries, could come to Torino and give a good account for themselves.

As for Fulham, the result could have been worse. We now have to go back to the Cottage and put in the display of a lifetime to go through, but hey, this is what cup competitions are for! No one thought that Fulham could beat Basel away from home, but they did, no one thought that Fulham could beat reigning champions Shakhtar Donetsk, but they did. In fact no one really gave Fulham too much of a chance of getting out of the group stages, but here we are. 2-0 is not a scoreline that is ridiculous, however if they score, it is probably all over. I for one cannot wait for the return leg, the Cottage will be jumping and knowing that two goals have to be scored, Roy might just take off the shackles a bit more than usual. Whatever happens it should be a memorable night!

Player Ratings:

Schwarzer – 8    Excellent in goal, could do nothing about all three of the goals

Baird – 5    Not his best game, struggled to add much to the game

Hughes – 6     Solid as usual, but not amazing

Hangeland – 6   Again, solid, but at fault for a couple of the goals

Konchesky – 5  Looked like a man returning from injury, and couldn’t find his rhythm.

Duff – 7  Industrious as ever, looked dangerous and if the man marking of him by Juventus is anything to go by, they were worried about him too.

Greening – 5  An easy scapegoat, but had a very average performance in the middle of the park and picked up a yellow.

Etuhu – 6    Better than people give him credit for and played one great pass out to Zamora on the wing that made me smile. Oh, and he scored!

Davies – 5  A poor game. He really struggles on the left which is fair enough considering he is a right winger. Would still like to see him play centre mid though!

Gera – 6  Buzzed about and looked dangerous, but couldn’t grab hold of the game.

Zamora – 7  Worked his socks off, was persistently fouled (as per) and continuously called offside, even when clearly on. Look for him to take it to Juventus in the return leg.

Well Done Stephen Kelly

March 4, 2010

I watched the Brazil-Ireland game on Tuesday night and other than flinching every time Damien Duff went in for a challenge, I kept a close eye on the much maligned Stephen Kelly.

Kelly has come in for a lot of stick this year, and much of it has been justified. He has struggled in defence consistently, to such an extent that Roy has preferred to play Baird there over the last few games. However, despite his struggles, I have never got irritated with him as I did with Baird when he first played there. I am not sure why, but I guess it is the fact that he never gives up, even when things are not going well. Accusations that he is ‘not a premiership player’ I feel are wide of the mark and Tuesday nights game went some way to helping me back up my argument.

Ireland’s defensive setup was somewhat similar to Fulham’s, which should come as no surprise as Hodgson and Trappatoni have similar coaching styles.  This meant that they played a very narrow defence with both fullbacks tucking in. This gave us a chance to watch Kelly’s defensive skills against a very good attacking side (even if under Dunga they have been more defensive than previous Brazilian sides). I thought that Kelly effectively neutralised the Brazilian attack down their left hand side, shackling Robinho and making a couple of goal-saving blocks (much like some of his recent ones at Fulham). It was most noticeable in the second half when Brazil attacked almost solely down the right hand side of the pitch, against Kevin Kilbane, with the marauding Maicon and others bombarding that flank. Great credit should go to Kelly for neutralizing this threat.

I think that Kelly’s recent Europa League exploits have been good as well. He has been played out of position for two of the most defensively intensive Fulham performances of the season, and perhaps even of all time. Although some may say Shakhtar’s goal in Donetsk was his fault as Douglas Costa glided past him on the wing to get the assist, I think this is harsh and not even our usual full backs would have been able to do much about that. Here is to hoping he can build on his recent better form and challenge for the starting spot at Fulham once again.

That Bobby Zamora Goal Again

February 19, 2010

Watching the highlights almost gets better every time.

I just keep thinking back to that Alan Patridge classic:

Shit! Did you see that? He must have a foot like a traction engine!

Always enjoyable.

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.

Fulham through to the last 32!!

December 16, 2009

Well, who’d have thought it? After the poor second half display against CSKA Sofia at the cottage and Basel seemingly unbeatable at home Fulham have pulled of an excellent win to get into the knockout stages. Of course I was stuck on a train as the game was being played (damn 6pm kickoffs), hoping that we could pull of a victory, but the rational part of my brain was preparing myself for bad news. I am going to have to see about going away to Europe now against our next opponents (Juventus please!) and the knockout factor will give it that extra bit of oomph.

Since I was unable to see the game, I will have to make do theorising about Fulham in Europe ( For extensive coverage of the game head over to CCN and HammyEnd).  Roy Hodgson makes me laugh. His pre-game comments about not playing the strongest team were jumped upon by many journo’s but we all knew him better than that. With the injuries we have had and the suspensions incurred we were always going to put out a mixed bag of a team, not that anyone outside the Fulham fans were ready to do a bit of research or acknowledge these facts. Roy has stuck with several “second team” players in the Europa league including Zoltan Gera and Bjorne Helge Riise and they have flourished. I really think we are almost designed to play in a style befitting European competition and the experience of Roy helps us no end. What disappoints me is the fact that the media have not picked up on the fact that despite the many setbacks we have had this season in Europe (and in the league, to be fair) through injuries and poor refereeing decisions, we have made a good show for ourselves in Europe. We have had a ‘never say die’ attitude that has really pleased me and reminds me of why I love Fulham so much.

I have always liked the UEFA Cup/Europa League as a competition, enjoying th progress of English teams and of Inter, my Italian team. It is nice to catch a glimpse of some of the ‘lesser’ clubs in European football and the unpredictability of the competition adds another dimension that I feel the Champions League is missing. People label the Europa League a ‘Mickey Mouse’ competition and I think that not only is this unfair, but goes to show how ignorant people can be about football. I am excited about the next round and it will probably be the highlight of Fulham’s season, regardless of who we draw.

Now for a prediction. I think Fulham have an outside chance of doing something in this competition. Whilst expecting to get to the final is a bit much, I can see a victory over a big side or reaching an advanced stage of the competition. Feel free to come and laugh when Fulham get knocked out by Salzburg after an inept performance, but if we can come through a tough group (one which we arguably should have won) then anything is possible. For now, lets hope for a good draw in the next round and an easing of the injuries we have suffered so far. Bring on Manchester United this weekend!