It was far from a vintage performance, shorn of first-team players, on a bumpy plastic pitch and with ‘safety first’ very much on their minds, but Fulham survived a late scare to progress to the Europa League group stages after a nervy night in Perm.
Roy Hodgson picked a defensively-minded side to protect the advantage they had earned with a 3-1 first leg win at Craven Cottage last week. Erik Nevland ran willingly for over an hour as the lone frontman in the absence of Andy Johnson, who suffered a horrible shoulder injury at the hands of a brutal Russian bodycheck in the first game, and Bobby Zamora. With Danny Murphy injured and Clint Dempsey rested, the midfield had an usual look about it with Chris Baird drafted in as a holding midfielder alongside Dickson Etuhu and Bjorn Helge Riise making his first start for the Whites. Stephen Kelly replaced the injured Paul Konchesky at left back.
Perm, much more at home on their artificial surface than their visitors, ripped into Fulham from the off. It is no exaggeration to say that the home side might have been ahead on aggregate by half-time. They penned Fulham into their penalty area and a rather more direct approach than in the first leg might have paid dividends. After Brede Hangeland half cleared a deep cross, the ball broke to Georgi Peev, whose powerful shot forced a fine reaction save from Mark Schwarzer at his near post.
Some last-ditch defending kept Fulham’s two-goal lead intact. First Hughes threw himself at the feet of Jean Carlos to block the Brazilian striker’s shot and then Martin Kushev saw his effort blocked. Even when Schwarzer flapped at a corner, fate conspired to keep the scoresheet blank. Both Dmitri Belorukov, the man who so cynically injured Johnson at the Cottage, and Ivan Cherenchikov looked destined to head the hosts in front but the two centre backs got in each other’s way and Belorukov contrived to nod over the crossbar from barely a yard out.
There was little change to the pattern in the second period. Although Baird and Etuhu were sticking diligently to their task and breaking the play up, Fulham had little in the way of an attacking threat. Indeed, Perm could have been in the driving seat within five minutes of the restart. First, Vitali Grishin, who scored such an impressive away goal last week, drove an effort just past the post and then Peev fashioned an opening for Kushev. His searching cross should really have been converted but Kushev powered his shot wide from close range.
There weren’t too many more clear cut chances until the closing stages. Hughes, unflappable as ever at the heart of the Fulham defence, managed a crucial block as Peev shaped to shoot after Schwarzer had kept out a Kushev effort. Just as it looked as though Fulham had done enough to progress with a creditable clean sheet to their name, Peev’s cross was headed emphatically home by the diving Kushev to set up a nervy finale. How substitute Nikolai Zhilayev spared John Pantsil’s blushes with a wretched injury-time miss ony he will know.
Fulham could have made the last seconds a little more bearable but substitute Seol Ki-Hyeon shot wide of goal when he burst into the box. No matter. The Whites can reflect proudly on grinding out the result when they needed it – particularly without several key players – and the possibility of more thrilling European nights to come.
AMKAR PERM (4-4-2): Narabin; Sirakov, Gaál, Belorukov, Cherenchikov; Grishin (Junuzovic 76), Telkiyski (Novakovic 60), Peev, Drincic; Jean Carlos (Zhilyaev 64), Kushev. Subs (not used): Usminski, Pomerko, De Oliveira, Kalashnikov.
GOAL: Kushev (90).
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Kelly, Pantsil, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Baird; Gera, Riise (Seol Ki-Hyeon 76), Duff; Nevland (Kamara 68). Subs: Stockdale, Anderson, Smalling, Saunders, E. Johnson.
BOOKED: Pantsil, Baird.
REFEREE: Markus Strömbergsson (Sweden).