Much changed they might have been but Roy Hodgson’s Fulham didn’t lack spirit in Sofia tonight. They hassled and harried their determined opponents, who had yet to concede a goal in domestic football, and earned a valuable point to take back to London courtesy of a second half strike from Diomansy Kamara.
Hodgson decided to prioritise Sunday’s trip to Wolves in the Premier League and left the majority of the men who started last week’s win over Everton back at home. A knee injury ruled out Damien Duff, while Andy Johnson and Bobby Zamora, themselves only returning from knocks at the weekend, were not risked. Captain Danny Murphy was ill and so unfamilar was the Fulham side that took the field Vasil Levski National that only David Stockdale – who made his debut in goal on Sunday – and John Pantsil had lined up against Everton.
Set in that context, it was certainly understandable that the Londoners made an uncertain start. Ivan Stoyanov, who has made such an impressive start to the Bulgarian domestic season, skipped past Zoltan Gera and sent a cross-cum-shot flashing across the six-yard line with colleagues diving desperately to try and get a decisive touch. Stoyanov continued to pose problems for much of the evening but Chris Smalling, making only his second appearance for Fulham, and Chris Baird, who excelled at centre back, marshalled the Fulham defence well.
Although there were lengthy spells of possession for both sides, there were few clear cut goalscoring opportunities. Fulham gradually settled into the contest and they could have gone in at half-time in very good heart had the converted their best chance of the first period. On-loan Jonathan Greening did well to get forward to an advanced position and his deflected cross reached Simon Davies, but the Fulham skipper saw his instinctive shot well saved by Ivan Karadzhov.
CSKA kicked off with renewed vigour in the second half and they might have opened the scoring shortly after the interval. Loud appeals for a penalty against Stephen Kelly went unheeded when the ball bounced up onto the Irish defender’s arm – a decision given by one of the extra goal-line officials introduced in the Europa League and proved correct by the subsequent television replays.
But Fulham’s relief was rather shortlived. Substitute Michel – who shares a full name with the UEFA president – did well to latch onto a Marquinhos flick on and even better to lash a 20-yard drive beyond Stockdale. If you being harsh you might lay the blame for the goal at young Smalling’s door but I thought the England under-21 defender had a decent game at the heart of the Fulham defence.
There was a fear that Fulham heads might have dropped with the concession of a goal but instead they hit back almost immediately with an equaliser that owed much to the understanding between the back-up striking partnership of Kamara and Erik Nevland. The Norwegian made the goal with a fine raking pass that was perfectly lofted over a retreating defence and Kamara dashed around the goalkeeper, who had committed himself by rashly charging out of his goal, and tucking the ball into the empty net.
A point represents a fine result for Fulham – especially with the widely established favourites to win the group, Roma, falling to a shock defeat in Basel – but they had young goalkeeper Stockdale to thank for preserving parity. He did brilliantly to turn a well-struck shot from Yordan Todorov over the bar as Fulham held on stoically. Plaudits should have also have been earned by the resolute defending of young Smalling and Baird, too often the scapegoat in recent seasons, and Hodgson’s faith in his fringe players was richly rewarded.
CSKA SOFIA (4-2-3-1): Karadzhov; Stoyanov, Minev, Kotev, Ivanov; Yanchev, Morozs (Marquinhos 45); Todorov, Yanev (Manchev 78), I. Stoyanov (Michel 54); Delev. Subs (not used): I. Petrov, Vidanov, Timonov, Branekov.
BOOKED: Minev, I. Stoyanov, Marquinhos.
GOAL: Michel (62).
FULHAM (4-4-2): Stockdale; Pantsil, Kelly, Smalling, Baird; Greening, Riise, Davies, Gera; Nevland, Kamara. Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Marsh-Brown, Watts, Anderson, Saunders, Smith, Uwezu.
BOOKED: Greening, Smalling, Kamara.
GOAL: Kamara (65)
REFEREE: Darko Ceferin (Slovenia).