Scrappy it may have been but there’s a case for saying that Fulham did last night what Arsenal managed on Saturday and ground out a crucial win. At times Roy Hodgson’s side were put on the back foot by a useful FC Basel side but their mixture of youth and experience showed plenty of resolve to remain in the contest and Danny Murphy’s sweetly struck shot from just outside the penalty area preserved Fulham’s unbeaten home record in European competition and put them on top of Group E after two games.
With an eye on a crucial league game at West Ham on Sunday, Hodgson opted for some of the side that had done so well in Sofia but this was a much stronger eleven than the one that took the field in Bulgaria. Paul Konchesky was a surprise starter at left back with Stephen Kelly replacing John Pantsil on the other side of the defence and Chris Baird and young Chris Smalling resuming their blossoming partnership at the heart of the back four. In the absence of Dickson Etuhu, Jonathan Greening joined Danny Murphy oin central midfield while it was a bit of a surprise to see Bjorn-Helge Riise line up on the right side of midfield instead of Zoltan Gera, so impressive as a substitute at the weekend. Yet, UEFA refused to allow Fulham to register Pascal Zuberbuhler as a replacement for the injured David Stockdale, and so Hodgson couldn’t name a substitute goalkeeper. I spent much of the evening hoping Schwarzer didn’t get injured or sent off and winced when a risky backpass from Greening had him scrambling to clear and losing his footing.
Fulham started sluggishly and were fortunate that the experienced pair of Basel strikers, Marco Streller and Alex Frei, lacked their usual composure in front of goal. Indeed, the visitors could have been two goals to the good before Hodgson’s side really started playing. First Frei contrived to drag a shot wide when he was completely unmarked at the near post after Behrang Safari had been allowed to carry the ball down the left wing. Then, with Fulham waiting for an offside flag that never came, Benjamin Huggel latched onto Streller’s clever flick but spooned his shot over from six yards with only Mark Schwarzer to beat.
Fulham only had a run and shot from Andy Johnson to point to in terms of attacking threat in the first half, although the striker was denied a penalty right on the stroke of half-time when he might have been hauled back after a defensive mistake offered the hint of an opportunity. The home side were very much second best in the first half. Basel’s short, crisp passing creating chances and not allowing Fulham to be comfortable on the ball. It was noticeable that Streller dropped back to hassle Murphy when Fulham had possession – and Basel’s discipline certainly stifled Hodgson’s side.
They were markedly improved in the second half, playing at a higher tempo and pressing the ball with far greater urgency. A snapshot from Clint Dempsey that whistled narrowly wide suggested better to come and the crucial goal arrived twelve minutes into the second half. Kelly, who looks a more than useful right back on this evidence, carried the ball forward and rolled a pass down the line for the ever-busy Johnson, who shook off the attentions of two defenders, before finding his skipper on the edge of the box. Murphy struck his shot well but questions could well be asked about Franco Costanzo’s goalkeeping as the ball trickled past him rather easily.
The goal galvanised Fulham and Johnson almost punished a mad piece of defending that saw David Abraham head the ball past Costanzo as the goalkeeper came to claim it. The former Everton striker might have sealed the contest late on when sent through on goal by Zamora but a poor touch forced him wide of goal and invited a last-ditch saving challenge. Nerves increased as the clock ticked on and the home side were made to endure a frantic final ten minutes.
Streller should have scored from close range when a low cross from Valentin Stocker found him completely unmarked, but the striker shot high into the Putney End. The sighs of relief were just as audible when Antonio Da Silva’s curling free-kick swerved just the wrong side of Schwarzer’s post and Fulham were indebted to their goalkeeper for a fine save from his compatriot, the substitute Scott Chipperfield, in added time.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Kelly, Konchesky, Smalling, Baird; Greening, Murphy, Riise, Dempsey; Zamora, A. Johnson. Subs (not used): Anderson, Pantsil, Hughes, Gera, Saunders, Nevland, Kamara.
BOOKED: Greening, Baird.
GOAL: Murphy (57).
FC BASEL (4-4-2): Costanzo; Shin, Safari, Abraham (Da Silva 69), Atan; Gelabert (Chipperfield 86), Huggel, Carlitos (Almerares 82), Stocker; Streller, Frei. Subs (not used): Colomba, Ferati, Shaqiri, Cabral.
REFEREE: Michael Weiner (Germany)