Sometimes football can be a very cruel game. Fulham were seconds away from a famous win over Roma last night when full-back Marco Andreolli popped up at the far post to lash a late equaliser past Mark Schwarzer and stun a packed Craven Cottage. Perhaps you couldn’t argue that Roma’s frenzied pressure in the final twenty minutes didn’t deserve an equaliser but it still seemed tough on ten-man Fulham’s energy and endeavour.
There was a rather surreal quality to the evening. Playing in the Europa League still remains something of a novelty for Fulham and, even though the Whites had played two group games previously, welcoming one of Italian football’s traditional powerhouses to the Cottage was something else. Imagine the surprise when Fulham, missing their entire first-choice midfield, preceeded to dominate Claudio Ranieri’s side so completely that you wondered how they only led by a single goal at half-time.
Roy Hodgson chose Bjorn-Helge Riise to play up against his brother John Arne on the Fulham right and it proved an inspired decision. The Norwegian, out to a settle a family score after he said his elder brother always won at everything when they were little, was really up for the battle and was Fulham’s most creative player as they surged forward. In the absence of Danny Murphy, sidelined with a knee injury, Riise was on corner duty for much of the first half – and his dangerous deliveries created several chances.
The first of which fell, after a bit of pinball in the Roma area, to Jonathan Greening, who struck a sweet shot from the edge of the box that Doni did well to push away. The on-loan West Brom midfielder found himself in space again a few moments later and this time his deflected effort whistled wide for a corner. Doni did well to stop a curling effort from Stephen Kelly, who replaced John Pantsil in the Fulham line-up, and the tireless Bobby Zamora, whose intelligent running caused no end of problems for the Roma rearguard, did well to turn in the box but a desperate challenge sent his shot wide.
The Italian relief was shortlived though. Riise swung over another threatening corner and Brede Hangeland soared over both his man and a confused Doni to head Fulham in front. It was a goal their bright start certainly merited but it also served to awake Roma from their slumber. John Arne Riise had their two best chances almost immediately afterwards. He shot narrowly over from the edge of the box and, forward for a corner, forced Mark Schwarzer into a fine save at full stretch at his near post.
Ranieri made changes at half time, bringing on both the clever David Pizarro and English-born midfielder Simone Perrotta, and Roma were much improved in the second half. Pantsil replaced Konchesky at the break for Fulham, who were much less of an attacking force in the second period. Now French winger Jeremy Menez was a constant menace down the left and he twice saw goalbound shots bounce away off defenders to safety.
Fulham were largely operating on the counter attack by now, but still posed a distinct threat. It mostly came through Bobby Zamora, who came close to providing a crucial second goal twice in quick succession. First his storming run down the left was followed by a cross that only didn’t reach Diomansy Kamara due to a well-timed interception by Philipe Mexes. Zamora then played a perfectly-weighted through ball to free Kamara, but as the Senegalese forward attempted to touch it past Doni, the ball struck the onrushing goalkeeper and bounced clear.
Arguably, the turning point was Hodgson’s decision to replace Zamora with Erik Nevland just after the hour. Once Zamora went off, Fulham had little in the way of a focal point up front and they begin to drift backwards, the midfield sitting ever deeper. Wave after wave of Roma attacks reigned down on the Fulham goal and it seemed like the Whites would hold onto a famous three points, even despite a very strange penalty decision.
After consultation with the newly-introduced extra official behind the goal, the referee awarded a penalty for a trip on John-Arne Riise, who certainly went to ground dramatically. That contentious decision was then compounded by a red card, firstly wrongly shown to Hangeland and then given to the luckless Kelly instead. If the penalty was harsh, the red card was outrageous. Riise had three players around him and Kelly was across to cover. Fortunately, justice was done when Schwarzer superbly saved Menez’s spot-kick and when Riise headed wide it looked as if Fulham could hold on.
The three minutes were almost up, and Nevland had seen a snapshot well held by Doni, when Roma won a late corner. It cleared the Fulham defenders and found Andreolli, lurking momentarily alone at the back post. He showed admirable technique for a defender to chest the ball down and strike it high into the net. Fulham have come a long way in recent times – as shown again last night by Roma’s players and travelling support joyously celebrating a late equaliser at the Cottage.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Kelly, Konchesky (Pantsil 45), Hughes, Hangeland; Baird, Greening, B-H Riise (Duff 75), Gera; Zamora (Nevland 61), Kamara. Subs (not used): Stockdale, Smalling, Anderson, Dempsey.
SENT OFF: Kelly.
GOAL: Hangeland (24).
ROMA (4-2-3-1): Doni; Andreolli, J. A. Riise, Mexes, Burdisso; De Rossi, Brighi (Pizarro 45); Menez, Taddei (Vucinic 63), Guberti; Okaka Chuka (Perrotta 45). Subs (not used): Lobont, Cassetti, Baptista, Greco.
GOAL: Andreolli (90).
REFEREE: Paul Allaerts (Belgium)