It could have been a very good night at Craven Cottage tonight. Andy Johnson looked back to his poacher’s best after he swooped in to put Fulham ahead after just four minutes, Clint Dempsey drove an unstoppable second home from 25 yards and Damien Duff offered a tantalising glimpse of what could be as a late substitute laying on a lovely goal for Bobby Zamora with his first touch.
But a fine victory was marred by two incidents. The first, a crude bodycheck by Dmitry Belorukov, not only stopped Johnson in his tracks as he threatened to burst through on goal but could have robbed Fulham of their most potent goalscorer for up to eight weeks. The initial diagnosis points to a dislocated shoulder for Johnson, which is a massive blow as he looked particularly lively tonight. Remarkably Belorukov escaped with only a yellow card – something a seething Roy Hodgson reflected on with raw anger afterwards.
Hodgson probably had good cause to upset with the way his side switched off in the closing stages too. Substitute Valeriy Grishin swept in what could yet prove a crucial away goal and Amkar Perm, no longer looking as toothless as they did in the early stages, might have narrowed Fulham’s lead still further at the death. Considering the return leg next week will be played on a plastic pitch in eastern Russia, a three goal cushion would have been much more comfortable.
Fulham had got off to a fine start. Zamora’s intelligent run saw him collect the ball in space on the left and he slipped a clever pass between Perm’s central defenders, who were caught horribly square. Johnson nipped in to lift the ball deftly over the advancing goalkeeper and the Cottage acclaimed a lovely opening goal. There might have been more before the break. Twice Sergei Narubin saved from Johnson and Dempsey seemed destined to score but saw his shot cleared by a scrambling defender.
Perm were patient in possession and knocked the ball around nicely, with the impressive Nicola Drincic at the heart of their best moves, but they were largely restricted to shots from distance. Still, with all the travelling the Whites will have to do next week, you got the feeling they could do with a few more goals. One arrived after the break and in the blink of an eye. Dempsey, as busy as ever, scurried infield, collected possession, surveyed his options and shot majestically into the net. It was breathtaking.
An even more pleasing goal came just seconds after Duff had been rapturously welcomed onto the field as Zoltan Gera’s replacement. The Irishman ran at his full back and beat him easily before picking out Erik Nevland with a perfect cross. Nevland selflessly teed up Zamora, who thumped home a shot from twelve yards or so. The prospect of Duff tormenting defenders like that every week has me salivating.
Our careless closing quarter of an hour means the second leg will be more dangerous than it might have been but Perm’s coach was probably guilty of a bit too much bravado when he told the post-match press conference that his side certainly wouldn’t lose. We shall see.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu (Baird 81), Murphy, Gera (Duff 78), Dempsey; Zamora, A. Johnson (Nevland 70). Subs (not used): Stockdale, Kelly, Riise, E. Johnson.
GOALS: A. Johnson (4), Dempsey (51), Zamora (75).
AMKAR PERM (4-5-1): Narubin; Sirakov, Cherenchikov, Belorukov, Gaal; Peev, Drincic, Jean Carlos (Junozovic 87), Novakovic (Telkivski 70), Zhilayev (Grishin 62); Kushev. Subs (not used): Usminskiy, Pomerko, William, Kalashnikov.
BOOKED: Belorukov, Cherenchikov.
GOAL: Grishin (77).
REFEREE: Oliveira Alves Garcia (Portugal).