On a good old-fashioned night for football, with the rain thundering down, Fulham took a while to get out of first gear. It didn’t help that the tie was already won – those three goals in Vilnius last Thursday had made the second leg rather academic. But still a hardy group of souls travelled to the Cottage to get their Fulham fix and were eventually rewarded with a much improved second half display.
Roy Hodgson picked what is probably his strongest side – the absence of Simon Davies apart – and the one that will kick off the Premier League campaign in just over a week’s time should the Welshman still not be available. Perhaps it’s unfair to single out particular players for criticism on such a low-octane night but I think Zoltan Gera’s got some way to go before he makes a convincing case for a first-team spot.
Bobby Zamora was certainly keen to build on his good pre-season and turned beautifully to create space for himself just two minutes in. The only problem was that the shot flew wide – and much of Fulham’s industry didn’t live up the standard our new number 25 had set.
Vetra, cheered on by a hardy and yet miniscule band of supporters in the left hand corner of the Putney End, weren’t here to make up the numbers. An ambitious drive from distance by Razanauskas as things opened up for him looked as though it was heading in until Mark Schwarzer tipped it over. As the visitors grew in confidence, Paulauskas – making a burst forward from left back – tried his luck from long range and his shot went narrowly wide.
Fulham, as if awakened from their stupor by the prospect of going behind, then fashioned two glorious chances of their own. First, Zamora’s spectacular volley was off target and then, after a brilliant little ball by Clint Dempsey, Andy Johnson headed Paul Konchesky’s cross against the bar. It looked for all the world as though Gera was about to make it 1-0 from the rebound but his goalbound shot was blocked on the line. As if he was frustrated by the stalemate, Konchesky took matters into his own hands – his 30-yard strike would have been as impressive as that wondergoal at West Ham last season: had it flown the other side of the post.
Fulham were playing lots of pretty passes but the first half highlighted the difficulty of trying to play through opponents who were packing their own half with ten yellow shirts. Dempsey unlocked the Vetra defence just before half time and sent Johnson through on goal, but the lively striker lifted his shot over the bar.
Johnson looked as though he’d broken the deadlock just a minute into the second period but his close-range finish was ruled out by the referee as the former Everton forward was holding the defender as he brought the ball down. Zamora burst into the penalty area and bore down on goal – his shot could have been heading in at the near post but for a brave block by a diving defender.
The first goal duly arrived after a succession of Fulham corners at the Hammersmith End. Dickson Etuhu’s clever run allowed him a free header that he guided into the far corner. Going ahead on the night seemed to liberate Fulham a little. Johnson created chances for Gera and Dempsey before a strong run from Zamora drew defenders to the ball and his low cross had just too much pace for Johnson to apply the finishing touch. New signings Bjørn Helge Riise and Stephen Kelly entered from the bench with the Norwegian immediately looking at home, spraying perceptive passes out to the right flank.
A similar situation produced the second goal ten minutes from time. This time it was Dempsey, whose persistence saw him rob the right back of possession, beat his man with a lovely piece of skill and deliver an inviting cross for Johnson to volley home from close range. There was time for an intriguing cameo from the impressive Eddie Johnson who laid on Andy Johnson’s second of the evening with a clever run and cross leaving his namesake to slip the ball into the empty net.
The match was preceeded a well-observed minute’s silence for Sir Bobby Robson, who died last week, and – arriving at the ground early – I noticed a collection of tributes from various clubs left for Robson at the gates of the Cottage. It was lovely to hear the noisier band of supporters, most of whom’s football memories would have started long after Robson’s finest hour at Italia ’90, lauding one of football’s finest ambassadors with a rousing renedition of ‘There’s Only One Bobby Robson’.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil (Kelly 78), Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Gera (Riise 78), Dempsey; Zamora (E. Johnson 82), A. Johnson. Subs (not used): Stockdale, Baird, Seol, Nevland.
GOALS: Etuhu (57), A. Johnson (80, 84)
FK VETRA (4-4-2): Valincius; Paulauskas, Borovskij, Jankauskas, Kijanskas; Stanaitis, Ražanauskas, V?ževi?ius (Eliošius 45), Vasiliauskas (Žulpa 80); Grigalevi?ius (Moroz 57), Grigaitis. Subs (not used): Galdikas, Bucholc, Ngapounou, Kulbis.
REFEREE: Istvan Vad (Hungary).