Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Athletico Madrid 2 - 1 Fulham (aet) part 2

The game - a strong line-up. Possibly the strongest although there is the debate at right back over Baird and Paintsil. I've a feeling Johnny might have got the nod if he hadn't picked up a knock, but Baird has had a great season and deserved a chance in the final. It didn't look as though he was going to take it particularly well, but got better as the game went on.
Strangely, Hangeland aside, the most jittery player appeared to be Danny Murphy - the only player on the pitch to have already won this trophy. It was from one of his quite frequent wayward passes that the first chance of the game came and Diego Forlan placed a shot against the foot of the far post.
It was a warning of things to come, but for some reason Fulham couldn't raise their game to match the flow of the Spaniards. But when Atletico took the lead, their goal enjoyed a huge slice of fortune - which tends to decide close games. Aguero mis-kicked a volley across the area, which fell so kindly for Forlan that he couldn't refuse the opportunity to pass it into Schwarzer's goal. From our viewpoint, which was more or less in line with the goal, Forlan looked a mile offside. Only today have I seen a reply and it's far, far closer than we thought, but could still easily have been given offside.
This perceived injustice at the time made me furious and I was barking my support down at the pitch, along with 13,000 other Fulham fans - I've seen fewer for games at the Cottage, so to have this number in Hamburg was a little weird, yet brilliant. The Madrid fans, more used to reaching finals, were a bit more organised with their massive banners and bouncy chanting, but the SW6 lot were in great voice too.
Suddenly an equaliser appeared out of nowhere. A not very mobile Bobby Zamora turned his marker with ease, took a touch too many and poked it towards Duff, who managed to squeeze it across to Zoltan Gera. The Hungarian dinked a little cross back towards Zamora, but a defender's head saw it look slightly over the forward. Fortunately Simon Davies had tucked in behind and executed a crisp volley which snuck in at the near post. I went mad as to me this was a justified equaliser after what I considered at the time to be Forlan's 'non-goal' and I roared my appreciation.
Looking back, that moment is probably the pinnacle of Fulham's history. A goal in a final - a European one, no less. This has never happened before for the whites and could be a long, long time before it ever happens again. A moment to savour retroactively.
The rest of the half continued in the same shape as what had gone before, Atletico with a decent attacking intent, but the Fulham defenders restricting them to long shots, the odd dangerous cross from Simao aside.
Fulham, so often a second half team this season, once again followed the script and came out far stronger and more adventurous for the second 45. Murphy stopped trying to force the issue and relaxed his game, which was encapsulated by a fantastic through ball to Gera. Unfortunately Zolly, who has been so deadly in Europe this year, was way too heavy with his first touch and the ball just ran through to the Atletico goalie, who reacted badly to Gera's legitimate attempts to reach the ball first.
Then Bobby Z had to be taken off, his injury problems all too apparent on this big stage and he was once again replaced by Clint Dempsey - a switch that has recently seen the frontline become more fluid. Not in this match though as Zamora's ability to hold the ball was massively missed by Fulham and any attacking forays by the whites ended up with Gera and Dempsey isolated. This is partly down to Hodgson's tactics in not letting the full-backs press up for fear of being hit on the counter attack, but when you've got a holding midfielder who has been told to be conservative in his passing, and I'm sure Dickson Etuhu was following orders with his wide range of sideways and backwards passes, there needs to be a bit more movement in the opposition half.
Still the defensive side of things was going swimmingly, with only wayward longshots heading anywhere near Schwarzer and I must admit to being quitely hopeful when Madrid took off what I considered to be their dangermen in Reyes and Simao. But the game fizzled out, although in injury time it looked very much like Hangeland had brought down Aguero in the penalty area. However the referee was better placed than I was and told the Argentine to get up. On replays it doesn't look like a foul, but you have seen them given.
So in my mind at the time Fulham had been given a bonus 30 minutes, although I was wary of the fact that Liverpool had been put to the sword in extra time by Forlan at Anfield.
Unfortunately this was to happen again, but before that Athletico had a goal chalked off at the end of the first period of extra time. At least that's what we all thought. I've just watched the replay again and again and only on the fourth time of viewing did I realise that Aguero actually put the ball into the side netting rather than the goal. That's weird. I'd concoted an explanation that the guy who put the cross in originally had tapped the ball into the goal from his team mates shot and was thus in an offiside position. But the crosser was miles off the pitch when the shot came in.
Still the second period starts and we look like we are dribbling into penalties when an Atheltico cross comes over and Forlan, once again darting in front of defenders, got a touch - you can't really call it a shot. But the ball then came off the underside of Hangeland's outstretched leg and squirmed past Schwarzer. Another slice of luck to the Spanish, and we knew then it was over. Greening replaced the immobile Murphy, who had presumably been left on for penalties, but with only four minutes remaining the gig was up and we all knew it. Which is why, with a couple of minutes left to play, the Fulham fans spontaneously burst into a round of applause for the team and all it has done for them this season. At the end of the match Atheltico were the better team and worthy winners of the game, but the Fulham fans were proud at what had gone before and wanted to let the players know that by clapping. It was an oddly touching and appropriate finale to a bonkers season, of which Fulham may never see the like again.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Athletico Madrid 2 - 1 Fulham (aet) part 1

They came, they scored, they faltered. Fulham can now revel in glorious defeat after a monumental season, but what might have been if it weren't for the movement of one of Europe's best goal poachers. It's hard to distance the game from the epic journey it took us to watch the game.
2.40am Wednesday morning I set off in our hired Renault Scenic picked up another five near West Brompton station and the final straggler Col at his house in Bromley before heading for our 6.20am Eurotunnel crossing. What I thought might be an excited, giddy journey was instead punctured by complaints of tiredeness and illness as the West Brompton lot went out the night before and only managed an hour or so's sleep.
We were at Folkestone early enough (I'm not sure whether to expect a speeding ticket) to catch an earlier crossing and made it into Calais by 8am local time.Within seconds we were on the motorway and 20 minutes later out of France and in Belgium. We were not the only Fulham fans ploughing this furrow. There were many other cars sporting flags or at the very least British licence plates so we were in good company.
We only had two drivers amongst our number - one had to drop out after his boss wouldn't let him have the time off, while another didn't have both bits of paper in order top be registered on the insurance remotely. So that left two of us to do the brunt of the driving - neither of us had driven in Europe before. We needn't had worried - 98 per cent of our driving was done on the motorway/autobahn where driving on the other side of the road wasn't really an issue.

When I wasn't driving - I was instead sleeping - and it was during this period where we fell foul of the new road layout around Eindhoven which is not recognised by the SatNav which probably added another hour or so to our already tight journey. When we got back on track we decided to forgo the German A1 autobahn (famous for Fulham's previous embankment warm-up) and head up the A7 near Hannover, which would take us straight to the station designated for Fulham fans. However the traffic in Germany was appalling. In fact the last 7 miles took us over an hour. Our original ETA of 4pm became 6.30 and obviously left us short of time. We would have to miss out on the fan preparations in the Reeperbahn and more or less go straight to the stadium on the shuttlebuses. Fortunately, and contrary to expectations, there was a food and drink 'German village' erected outside the stadium and it was here where we finally got into the occasion with incidents such as the Fulham fans serenading one of the food stall workers with 'there's only one Rodney Marsh'.
As we made our way up to the impressive stadium (all football grounds should be built on hills) we went through the rigorous security checks, with one over zealous guard convinced our satnav was a makeshift bomb to climb up the stairs. And then climb up the stairs. And then climb up the stairs. It turned out our 105 quid tickets were one row from the back and we really required oxygen tanks and a sherpa to find our seats. The view was good though and we got a perfect look at the opening celebration which for some reason featured creepy women with lightening farts being transported around the ground on buggies. The music system was oppressive though and UEFA should consider that instead of adding to the atmosphere it might actually prevent the fans from creating an atmosphere of their own.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

The night before a big game

I'm off to Hamburg at 3am so I'll make this quick. The parallels with Fulham and the Boro team that reached the UEFA Cup final in 2005 are numerous. Unfashionable club, bankrolled by one rich enthusiastic fan, defies the odds to get to the final in only their second ever foray into European competition. Both had managers mooted to take the England job.
Both teams mounted unlikely comebacks in the knock out stages (although Middlesbrough tended to leave it until the last minute), both played Roma and Basle and met a Spanish side in the final. Christ - they both had the same goalkeeper! But hopefully that's where the parallels end. Boro got spanked in the final 4-0 by Sevilla and in four short years were relegated when the owner was forced to turn off the money tap. It could very easily happen to Fulham.
This is why it's important to make this final count. And count hard. Athletico's season isn't over. They have another league game and the Copa Del Ray final next Wednesday. Let them concentrate on those ties. Fulham have got to be as focused and disciplined as their manager and not have some of the bizarre play that we saw in Turin that allowed Juventus to come away with three goals.
And hopefully Schwarzer's wobbles have all gone. After a great season it would be a tragedy if he 'dropped the ball' for the last three games, especially will a World Cup to play in. My head says that it will be 0-0 but you get the inkling that Fulham might sneak it 2-1. It's a brave new world - hopefully the players will be able to embrace it. They've done themselves proud getting this far. Just one more push and they can become legends.

Monday, 10 May 2010


We're going to Hamburg! Which is a bit scary. I did question whether I had any right to attend the final but as a season ticket holder for four years (will I will be) and having already been to watch Fulham overseas in Switzerland then I think I'm justified in having one of the 12,000+ tickets made available.
Also my trip has been funded by Mr Paddy Power after a successful punt on Fulham and Athletico getting to the final as mentioned here and also a bet on Chelsea betting Wigan by more than five goals this weekend. It's hard to like Chelsea but the way they have pummelled teams this season is worthy of the title.
Here are some OFFICIAL UEFA statistics:
  • Atlético have reached the final of a major UEFA club competition on four previous occasions, enjoying just one triumph. That came in the 1961/62 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup when they drew 1-1 with ACF Fiorentina in Glasgow before beating the Italian side 3-0 in a replay at the Neckarstadion in Stuttgart on 5 September 1962. Thus, Atlético won their only major European trophy on German soil.
  • They also reached the 1962/63 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup final, but – in their only previous final meeting with an English side – lost 5-1 to Tottenham Hotspur FC at De Kuip stadium in Rotterdam.
  • Overall, their record in six major UEFA showpiece matches reads W1 D2 L3 (not including the European/South American Cup), scoring six goals and conceding 14 in those games.
  • Current Fulham manager Roy Hodgson has been involved in one major European final before, with his FC Internazionale Milano side losing the 1996/97 UEFA Cup showpiece 4-1 on penalties at San Siro after trading 1-0 home wins with FC Schalke 04.
  • Fulham goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer played for Middlesbrough FC in the final of the 2005/06 UEFA Cup, which his side lost 4-0 to Atlético's Liga rivals Sevilla FC.
    • Danny Murphy is the only Fulham player to have won a UEFA Cup final, having been on the victorious side with Liverpool FC in the 2000/01 edition. The Reds beat Spanish side Deportivo Alavés 5-4 thanks to an extra-time golden goal at the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund. Thus, his only previous UEFA club competition final against a Spanish side in Germany ended in victory.
  • The final will be Atlético's 75th UEFA Cup and UEFA Europa League outing and Fulham's 25th. Atlético have disputed 211 UEFA club competition games to Fulham's 32.
  • Fulham are now unbeaten in their last five European games since a 3-1 loss at Juventus in their round of 16 first leg. The London side will be competing on German soil for the third successive round after meeting VfL Wolfsburg and HSV in the quarter and semi-finals respectively; away from home, they beat the 2008/09 Bundesliga champions 1-0 before drawing 0-0 with Hamburg.
  • The final will be Fulham's 19th game since they started their UEFA Europa League campaign in the third qualifying round. Their record in 18 European fixtures this season reads W11 D4 L3, scoring 30 goals and conceding 16. It will be Atlético's 17th European fixture since their campaign began in the UEFA Champions League play-off round. Their 16 games thus far have given them the tally W4 D8 L4, scoring 17 goals and conceding 22.
  • • Atlético have lost all three of their UEFA club competition penalty shoot-outs to date; 7-6 at home to Derby County FC in the 1974/75 UEFA Cup, 3-1 at Fiorentina in the 1989/90 UEFA Cup and 3-1 at home against Villarreal in a 2004 UEFA Intertoto Cup final.
  • The referee is Italy's Nicola Rizzoli, who bossed Manchester United's game against Bayern Munich from which the German side advanced on away goals after United's right back was dismissed for two soft yellow cards. Well, a soft second yellow at any rate. He has refereed Atheltico before - an Intertoto cup defeat by Romanian side Gloria 1922 Bistriţa in 2007.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Fulham 0 - 1 Stoke City

The last home game of a momentous season ended up something of a damp squib because a) it was a Wednesday night, b) it was the third home game in a week, c) there is a small matter of next week's Europa League final and d) it was against Stoke City.
I must admit that I quite admired the Potters for the way they have comfortably remained in the Premier League and pulling off some shocking results along the way. However this is because I've never watched them actually play. They're in danger of being categorised with Bolton and Blackburn as another side that uses the physical approach to bridge any perceived skill gap.
I've never seen so many off the ball incidents go unpunished by a referee - who got booed off at the end of the game. The ref seemed to let all Stoke's niggles pass as legal, yet every time one of their players hit the deck it seemed to be a foul. Bizarre.
There wasn't a whole lot else going on pitchside. There were a couple of shots each before Fuller's deflected cross (off Tuncay's hand irritatingly) caught the defence cold-footed and allowed Matty Etherington to put the ball beyond Schwarzer, who had a bit of a shakey game. Get it out of your system here, Mark. Good thinking!
The Stoke fans were amusing - at one point doing a conga in and out the bowels of the Putney End. It looked more fun than watching another cold match at the Cottage.
After the match a rather the players conducted a rather half-hearted lap of honour around the ground in front of a set of lukewarm fans. Everyone knows that Hamburg will host the true end to this season rather than a low-key league match. Fingers crossed for a better outcome.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Fulham 3 - 2 West Ham United

Now this was satisfying, although with the Hammers' Premier League survival ensured, not as satisfying as it could have been. I have a long-standing apathy for West Ham United - mainly because they keep beating my teams - so to see them beaten, and beaten relatively easily, was succour for the soul.
West Ham's self-aggrandizing owners had complained to the Premier League about the 'weakened' team put out at Hull City last month, saying that a ladies team would have beaten Fulham's starting XI. However the fact that 8 of the players from that game started this time around and managed to get past West Ham's strongest side speaks volumes on both the weakness of the complaints and the Hammers' team.
Resting after Thursday's extravaganza, Fulham put out its second string and it was still comfortable enough against West Ham. The first half had nothing in it - a couple of saves from both keepers and a Dempsey shot that bounced off the top of bar, so it was surprising when a one-two between Davies and Demspey opened up the Hammers defence with a minute to go and the American's quick shot beat Green at his near post. The way the ball bounced out of the goal fooled me into thinking the shot had gone wide at first, but no. A 1-0 lead plundered from nowhere and West Ham barely had time to kick off before the half time whistle was blown.
Craven Cottage was wet and cold on this day - such a contrast from the semi-final a few days before but not that the West Ham fans seemed to notice. Giddy from staying up (more because of the dearth of quality below them than anything their team did), the Hammers were noisy and boisterous and easily outsang a Fulham crowd emotionally spent from their European exploits.
Second half began and once again Fulham improved. When the second goal came, it was from an unlikely source. The ball bounced out from a corner and Chris Baird smacked it back into the mixer. At first I thought it had gone straight in, but everyone kind of stood around and Baird himself wasn't celebrating, so I assumed there had been a whistle and the goal disallowed. But no - the ball had deflected off the hapless Carlton Cole past his keeper, which is why Baird didn't really celebrate and Fulham suddenly had a cushion.
Not for long though. A long free kick into the box was met by the powerful English striker, who glanced the ball past Schwarzer into the goal. Cole had now scored two in five minutes after doing nothing all game. It's been a while since I've seen someone score for both teams though.
Then West Ham did what they've been doing all season - they shot themselves in the foot. Behrami fell over which let Konchesky have the ball. Jonathan Spector cut out the cross, but then tried to take on Erik Nevland (who had been transplanted onto the left wing to make room for Okaka). Nevland won the ball and swept the ball across the box for the Italian loanee to tap into the goal. All the players went to congratulate Nevland, while Okaka went off celebrating on his own.
West Ham plundered another goal in injury time but it didn't matter by then. (why do Fulham concede so many late goals but score so few? Maybe it's because they do most of the work before the end of the 90 minutes).
A five goal non-thriller then, but who cares when there's a cup final in Europe still to come. I wonder if Roy will don his boots for the game at Arsenal? Got keep them first-teamers fresh!

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Fulham 2 - 1 Hamburg

I landed from Madrid at Heathrow at 6pm, nipped home and headed to the ground in the humid, summery conditions which were not a million miles away from those I'd just left in Spain. The night before I'd watched Inter pull off a performance that looked remarkably reminiscent to Fulham's European style in the Bernabau to progress to the Champions League final (much to the relief of all the Real Madrid fans) which struck me as a good omen.
Fans aplenty were making their way to the Cottage amid the blossom trees with a happy-go-lucky feel. With Fulham hosting a European semi-final the outcome of the match wasn't hope - it was contentment. Nobody expected to get this far and if this was to be the last hurrah then so be it.
As we were walking in, Zamora's name was announced on the tannoy in the starting line-up - a fillip for both the team and the fans. He almost pulled off a German one-two as well with yet another early goal against Teutonic opposition but Hamburg's keeper made a great reflex save from his second minute shot, which had been fashioned in a typically Zamorean way.
Also making a surprise appearance was John Paintsil. Most Fulham fans had thought he had been removed from the UEFA squad when he got injured in December, but here he was, playing in his usual, slightly haphazard way. He was clearly a bit rusty though - fortunately Duff in front of him put in another sterling defensive shift.
My Madrid conference happened to have a certain Peter Shilton as the keynote speaker and one of the things that he talked about was the defensive wall in front of a free kick (specifically the World Cup 1990 semi-final). He said he covered one side of the goal while the wall did the rest, unless the player somehow got the ball over it and down quickly enough. Against West Germany, they passed the ball so that the shot was taken from another point - rendering the wall useless. Shilton reacted to that by moving forward and narrowing the angle, improving the amount of the goal that he could protect. Unfortunately this meant that when the ball looped off Paul Parker, Shilts was too far off his line because he had found it necessary to come forward. Anyway all this was going through my head when Petric stepped up to take a free kick which was needlessly given away when Murphy and Duff contrived to lose the ball. We were sat directly behind the goal, so we could see the angles. The wall was protecting the right hand side of the goal, while Schwarzer marshalled the left. The only way the ball was going in was that if somehow Petric managed to get it over the wall and down fast enough under the bar. Well I saw the ball clearly find the top corner, but I still don't quite know how he did it. Watching it back on TV, I can't bellieve how far out he was either. Schwarzer was done by a quite fabulous free-kick. It would have been no disgrace to be knocked out by that goal, which seemed highly likely given that it meant Fulham now needed to score twice.
Three Germans sat in one of the front rows of the Hammy End must have forgotten where they were as they jumped up to celebrate the goal. It wasn't long before they were shepherded out by the stewards. They should be thankful for small mercies.
Hamburg didn't deserve the goal - no-one had particularly dominated the game - but they found that bit of brilliance that they lacked at home and were happy to take it. Before that Aaron Hughes had been imperious in the Fulham defence and snuffed out most danger. I didn't even notice Ruud van Nistelrooy on the pitch. In fairness the Germans continued to play football rather than sit on the lead. Had it been an Italian or Spanish side I would have expected there would have been far more theatrics and time-wasting - even after 22 minutes.
Half time came and went without anything exciting happening and Fulham were huffing and puffing in the second half to get back into the game. Then another one of those great collective moments happened. "Stand up if you still believe!" started echoing around the ground with fans in all the stands getting to their feet in order to show their support to the players on the pitch. It was only slightly cheapened 10 minutes later with a half-hearted repeat. Fortunately the team had already received the message.
Once again Zamora had to limp off and was replaced by the far more fluid Clint Dempsey and Fulham turned things up a notch. This was reflected in the sudden desperation of Hamburg's defending. Man City-bound Jerome Boateng took off about 10 yards away from Zoltan Gera feet first and took the man and the ball with an outrageous lunge. That would be a straight red in most games, definitely in the Premier League, but he escaped with a yellow. Hamburg also escaped as the cute Konchesky freekick to Duff saw the Irishman roll the ball agonisingly wide in a packed penalty area. Fortunately it was the shape of things to come.
With Dempsey introducing more movement upfront, gaps were starting to form in the Hamburg back line and Murphy clipped a ball into Simon Davies who had made one of his frequent runs into some space in the centre. Three touches later and Fulham were level. It was a wonderful goal, but each touch was more a reaction to the previous one rather than a skillful method of drawing the defender the wrong side. The first bit of control sat up nicely for Davies to try and hook it over the head of the marking defender. This drew the goalkeeper out and allowed Davies to half volley the ball with his left foot in off the post. There was nothing else he could have feasibly done with the ball in that moment and the crowd went wild. Davies can be viewed as the weak link in Fulham's offensive set, but he is tidy and can follow instructions - which makes him a perfect Hodgson player. This goal showed exactly why he is in the starting XI and gave the whites renewed hope.
But there was still work to be done. Fortunately it didn't take long. Hodgson replaced Johnny P with Erik Nevland and Davies switched to right back. One run up the wing beyond Duff brought Fulham a corner which ended up loose in the Hamburg box. Nevland nearly got to it, but Gera was strongest and most assertive and he took the ball and some how shot whilst spinning past the Hamburg keeper and defenders into the back of the net. Delirium in the stands and on the pitch. Hodgson's two substitutions had helped stretch Hamburg and the goals came.
There were still about 15 minutes left though and an equaliser would see Hamburg progress on away goals. It sounded like the guy sat behind me would rather Fulham still had it to do rather than protect a lead for that long. He was moaning with worry. He needn't have bothered. There were a few scrambles in the box, but Fulham were closer to scoring another when Dempsey was played through and the keeper took him out. It didn't matter in the end though Fulham were, incredibly, through to the final of the Europa League. The game itself was pretty dire with both goalies only making one save each, but that didn't matter. Grown men were crying around me and the huge outpouring of emotion almost got me. Fulham had made a final and they deserved it. It might not ever get better than this. Roll on May 12.

Rich Text