It really was rather remarkable. In the Swiss snow that made our very own winter wonderland look tame by comparison, Roy Hodgson stayed true to his word and kept faith in the fringe players who had performed so well to keep Fulham’s European juggernaught on course. Eyebrows were raised when it was announced that Brede Hangeland, the linchpin of last season’s resolute defence, would join Clint Dempsey and Damien Duff on the Fulham bench, in a match Fulham needed to win to progress from the group stages of the Europa League.
Suspensions and injuries meant that Hodgson was only able to field Bobby Zamora as a lone striker. By half time, that didn’t seem much of a handicap. The Fulham forward, mocked for his lack of his goals in his first season at Craven Cottage and more recently the subject of frenzied attention for an angry goal celebration after he scored the winner against Sunderland, settled the nerves of the 1,200 travelling supporters with two goals towards the end of a first half, during which Fulham had clearly grown in confidence.
Zamora, all energy and endeavour, seemed to revel in being Fulham’s spearhead on this most important of nights. He was up for the physical battle, throwing himself into challenges, and fired an early warning to an incredibly porous Basel defence when he curled in an effort, before his celebrations were rudely interrupted by the assistant referee’s offside flag. The decision was marginal and Zamora briefly bawled his displeasure at the official. It followed a bright start from the visitors who might have taken the lead in very first minute had Jonathan Greening been a little more ambitious and thrown himself at Bjorn Helge Riise’s inviting cross.
His intelligent runs were posing Basel, unbeaten in eleven matches at their St. Jakob-Park fortress, plenty of problems. By contrast, the Swiss side seemed dangerous only when Fulham took their eye off the ball. Twice, Alex Frei nearly profited from quickly taken throw-ins and the nervousness this prompted suggested that a Fulham goal was imperative. It arrived shortly before the break. The impressive Riise, having won the ball back with a fierce tackle in midfield, sent over a dangerous cross from the right and Zamora exploited the space left by a horribly square defence to volley home at the far post.
Three minutes later and Fulham were in dreamline. The same combination engineered another opening – this time a deft touch from Zamora’s chest sent Riise scampering into space and a high, hanging cross was majestically headed past a hapless goalkeeper by the revitalised centre forward. No longer ponderous, the confidence is coarsing through Zamora’s veins. As well it might. This was the first time in four years he had scored in three consecutive fixtures and he now has four European goals to his name, a tally that only one of his compatriots can match – Michael Owen.
Of course, Fulham being Fulham, they couldn’t do things the easy way. They had to be a controversial decision to put their progress in doubt. It arrived when young Chris Smalling was harshly adjuged to have handled a cross from substitute Federico Almerares. The referee initially seemed to give a corner, but then pointed to the spot. Frei wasted little time in notching his 23rd goal of the season.
Basel briefly threatened, with Frei striking the crossbar, but Fulham settled matters decisively by reestablishing their two-goal cushion. A flowing move saw Stephen Kelly, a makeshift left back, motor into the penalty area and pull the ball back for Zoltan Gera to caress a shot sweetly into the far corner. Marco Streller’s late header might have made for a nervy finale, but it was all pretty academic in truth.
The Whites can now look forward to the draw for the first knockout round on Friday when they’ll avoid their compatriots, Everton and Liverpool, but could face the likes of Ajax, Marseille, Atletico Madrid or Juventus. Hodgson has a preference for another Italian trip after masterminding another ‘Great Escape’. Plenty of people thought their European hopes had vanished in Rome, but rather like their extraordinary ascension from the Premier League relegation zone in Hodgson’s first season, they overlooked Fulham’s fighting spirit.
FC BASEL (4-4-2): Colomba; Inkoom, Safari (Shaqiri 45), Abraham, Cagdas Atan; Carlitos (Schurpf 79), Cabral (Almerares 45), Huggel, Stocker; Frei, Streller. Subs (not used): Wessels, Gelabert, Ferati, Sahin.
GOALS: Frei (pen 63), Streller (87).
FULHAM (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Kelly, Hughes, Smalling; Etuhu, Murphy, Riise, Greening (Dempsey 70); Gera; Zamora (Duff 80). Subs (not used): Stockdale, Briggs, Hangeland, Saunders, Uwezu.
BOOKED: Zamora, Greening.
GOALS: Zamora (41, 44), Gera (77).
REFEREE: Stefan Johanneson (Sweden).