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.

1 comment:

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