Last night showed just how far Fulham have come under Roy Hodgson. The European run has been a terrific experience for the club and the fans but our beloved side have stood on the brink of something special many times before, albeit often at a much lower level than where we find ourselves now. Only those have proven to be false dawns. Too often when it came to the crunch, Fulham would fail to play, slip at the final hurdle or make a silly mistake.
Not last night. Not in Shakhtar. Not, in truth, too often under Hodgson. He deserves great credit for taking an almost ludicrously leaky defence and reshaping it to such an extent that it is now miserly. Much has been made of Hodgson’s Italian influences. The manner in which the coach organises his sides and sides them up away from home has all the marks of an Italian coach, whose first priority is, in the words of a writer at Corriere dello Sport many moons ago, to ‘protect the nil after the opponent’s name’. Such organisation requires discipline in the midfield, especially the two central midfielders in a regular 4-4-2 (or – as we’ve seen more recently in the 4-4-1-1), but also demands a strong work ethic from the wide players.
Hodgson’s tactics were spot on last night. Fulham defended excellently from the front. He noted just how well Zoltan Gera stuck to Barry Ferguson on Sunday and the Hungarian was more than willing to drop back into midfield to supplement the four behind him when Shakhtar had the ball. Bobby Zamora would frequently drop off as deep as the halfway to make it difficult for the home side to play their way through Fulham, even with their ridiculously precise and successful passing.
More than that, there was something subtle about the little tweaks to Hodgson’s formation. Fulham have always been narrow in midfield since Hodgson came to the helm, but the ‘wide’ players probably couldn’t even be given that moniker last night. Davies and Duff have immense ability with the ball at their feet and can turn a game in an instant (as the Irishman demonstrated with an inch-perfect cross for the Fulham goal) but their value tonight was in stopping Shakhtar’s raiding forwards from gaining too much joy, especially when the Ukrianians tried to switch the ball quickly.
The midfielders also had a responsibility to get back and shut down the space in the full back positions. That was because Fulham’s back four were so close together at times you could have thrown some playing cards over them and covered the defensive line easily. This was obviously a reaction to how Shakhtar played in the pockets of space between the centre backs and the gaps between centre half and full back. It largely worked – although Shakhtar had a lot of the ball they didn’t gallop through any holes. Roy also referred, in the post-match press conference, to the fact that Shakhtar played largely ‘in front of us’ – a welcome development after the way Ilsinho floated a ball behind a square defence for the equaliser at the Cottage.
Hangeland was immense at the back but we expect that. It was reassuring to see him back to his best after an iffy January with injuries and some sub-par performances. Aaron Hughes was outstanding, full of confident last-ditch tackles and important blocks, especially as the crosses came flying in during the second period.
But I’d like to finish with a word about our fabulous full-backs. It’s easy to forget that neither Chris Baird nor Stephen Kelly were playing in their rightful positions last night. I’d quibble with the ITV assertion that ‘Baird is a midfielder by trade,’ however well he’s done when forced into that role this season. It would have been tempting prior to Christmas to say he wasn’t a right back either, but the newly confident Northern Ireland international is revelling in proving the doubters wrong. Plenty of people questioned his ability during a nightmare start at the Cottage, but nobody can doubt his quite brilliant character to put all that behind him and be playing probably the best football of his career right now.
Many observers were worried about Kelly being the weak link in the second leg and rued the absence of both Paul Konchesky and Nicky Shorey. The on-loan Aston Villa left back has made a real difference since he’s come in on loan but this was a strong performance from Kelly, who certainly didn’t let anybody down. I’d go further than that still. It was a confident display, full of determination and his distribution was pretty progressive throughout. Anyone who blames Kelly for the goal, when he gets beaten by an electric turn of pace and a sumptuous bit of skill from the Brazilian Douglas Costa, is being unduly harsh. It could be the night Kelly came of age.
Let’s face it: with Roy Hodgson’s Fulham, the sky’s the limit.