It wasn’t pretty. It was gritty, often nervy and – at times – even a little desperate but it was enough. Fulham claimed the sizeable scalp of the UEFA Cup holders, Shakhtar Donetsk, in Ukraine tonight with a performance full of the tenacity and organisation that has characterised their rapid rise under Roy Hodgson. The wily old coach, who unbelievably was thought to have something to prove in his homeland when he returned to the Premier League with Fulham staring relegation in the face in 2007, predicted that Shakhtar will unleash an early onslaught and he was right. But the Londoners stood firm, scored with their first attack and, barring a frantic finale which saw captain Danny Murphy sent off for an impetus kick at an opponent in injury, largely withstood the home pressure.
The stoutness of Fulham’s defence undoubtedly contributed to their progress once again. Shakhtar saw plenty of the ball at Craven Cottage a week ago but couldn’t translate that into goals and seemed intent on wreaking revenge in the Donbass Arena. Merely reaching the twenty minute mark with their narrow advantage still intact was something of an achievement for Hodgson’s side. The Ukrainians forced a succession of early corners and carved the Fulham defence open with their slick, snappy passing. The clearest chance came the way of Jadson, but one of Shakhtar’s five starting Brazilians, inexplicably miscued when he was afforded far too much room eight yards from goal.
Shakhtar seem to have borrowed more than just personnel from South America. They’ve taken the Brazilian philosophy with them as well. Players changed positions with dizzying regularity and the full backs pushed on to supplement three advanced midfielders. Mark Schwarzer, having saved from Luiz Adriano as early as the first minute, smothered a couple more efforts from the striker who had fired a crucial away goal at the Cottage and fielded similar strikes from Fernandinho and Ilsinho. The ease with which Willian, who forced Schwarzer to tip a fierce drive over his crossbar, was getting round Chris Baird would have worried the travelling fans but both he and Thomas Hubschmann, more famed for stopping goals than scoring them, fired wide from threatening positions.
It had the hallmarks of a backs-to-the-wall effort about it but you feared Fulham’s gallant defensive rearguard would almost inevitably end in failure. Then, unbelievably, with their first attack, the visitors went in front. Murphy wandered over to a free kick with Damien Duff, offered a couple of words of advice and walked away. Duff whipped it into a dangerous area from where Hangeland glanced a header into the far corner. It seemed ludicrously easy. One attack, one effort on goal, one-nil.
The goal gave Fulham confidence and there was a bit more energy about their attacks from that point until half-time. Bobby Zamora attempted to beat the goalkeeper from what might a few weeks ago have been considered absurd range but now seemed fair game. Fulham remained resolute at the back with Hughes and Hangeland throwing themselves into crucial challengers and, as an indication of their wholesome commitment, the more offensively-minded Simon Davies and Duff were getting through a great deal of diligent defensive work.
Mircea Lucescu, the Romanian coach who has steered Shakhtar to three league championships and UEFA Cup success since taking over in 2004, resisted the temptation to go for broke, opting instead merely to change their anchor in central midfield. The home side attacked with renewed vigour in the second period and there were a few hairy moments. Douglas Costa, much more influential here than a week ago, seemed to do things at significantly greater speed than any of his team-mates. His acceleration into the box surprised Baird even if Luiz Adriano was unable to profit, but when he got behind Stephen Kelly, there was end product to match the adventure. Jadson, who had barely flickered on the radar for much of the contest, appeared just outside the six-yard box to reach the cut back and fire clinically past Schwarzer. Game on.
Belief surged through Shakhtar and the full-to-capacity stadium. Adriano should have done better than head tamely at Schwarzer and the goal only served to delay an attacking change from Lucescu. It was heart in mouth time whenever Douglas Costa carried the ball towards the box or the increasing Illsinho had half a yard of space in front of the Fulham box. With such slick passing designed to plot a route through the tightest of gaps, it was a relief to see Shakhtar desperately thrashing shots from distance.
Fulham kept their shape even if Bobby Zamora was replaced with David Elm, a more conventional target man but a more limited forward than our in-form focal point, and a defensive mistake gave Gera the chance to seal the contest as the clock ticked down. The Hungarian capitalised on a charged down clearance to sprint almost from the halfway line through on goal unattended but struck his shot wide of the near post. He lay disconsolate on the ground, holding his head in the knowledge that he’d spurned the chance to end Fulham’s anxiety.
Then came Murphy’s moment of madness, flicking a boot at an opponent as Fulham tried to wind down the clock. It was petty, but could prove pretty costly once the UEFA disciplinary committee review the red card. Not that it dampened Fulham’s giddy celebrations at the final whistle as they completed a mouthwatering meeting with either Ajax or Juventus in the last sixteen.
SHAKHTAR DONETSK (4-3-2-1): Pyatov; Srna, Rat, Kucher, Rakytskiy; Fernandinho, Hübschman (Kravchenko 45); Ilsinho, Jadson, Willian (Costa 53); Adriano (Gladkiy 76). Subs (not used): Tetenko, Lewandowski, Gai, Ishchenko.
GOAL: Jadson (69).
FULHAM (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Baird, Kelly, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Duff, Davies (Riise 89); Gera; Zamora (Elm 72). Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Marsh-Brown, Smalling, Greening, Nevland.
SENT OFF: Murphy.
GOAL: Hangeland (33).
REFEREE: Svein Odvar Moen (Norway).