Walking to the ground in the early evening rain tonight, I chanced upon a conversation between a father and son. The elder man, sensing that his young boy – who couldn’t have been more than six – might not comprehend the significance of the game ahead of him, whispered quietly: ‘This is a massive game. Massive. Shakhtar are the defending champions’.
His critics might have disagreed at the start of the season but, when it comes to massive games, you can count of Bobby Zamora. The much-maligned striker delivered a terrific performance against Roma and Fulham’s attacking effectiveness only dipped once he was withdrawn early by Roy Hodgson. Zamora scored two crucial first half goals in Basel and slayed Manchester United before Christmas and he produced a quite astonishing strike here to give Fulham a decent chance of toppling the UEFA Cup holders in the second leg in Ukraine next week.
This was an enthralling game from the outset and one that Shakhtar, with their sublime, short passing football, will have felt unfortunate to lose. You sensed that the home side’s best chance of success came at the Cottage and that they needed to attack with purpose from the first whistle. Fulham heeded the call. They might have gone in front inside the first minute but Andriy Pyatov did brilliantly to turn over a header from Brede Hangeland. Delirium was merely postponed for a couple of minutes.
Captain Danny Murphy prized open the Shakhtar defence with a precise pass that Zamora galloped onto and the returning Zoltan Gera thumped his shot underneath a surprised Pyatov from a seemingly impossible angle. Fulham swarmed forward with intent but gradually the visitors gained a foothold in the game, playing the ball patiently from side to side across the Fulham penalty area, almost toying with Hodgson’s side. Fernandinho, their gifted playmaker, was at the heart of each move and nearly embarassed Hangeland after robbing the tall Norwegian defender when he dwelt on the ball in a dangerous position.
For all their possession, Shakhtar had precious few chances. Brazilian Rodrigues Jadson spurned the first from the edge of the box, shooting wide of Mark Schwarzer’s goal, and captain Darijo Srna came very close to finishing a flowing move from distance when his ambitious effort whizzed narrowly wide. You could see the South American imprint on Shakhtar’s side and it was appropriate that two Brazilians combined to level the tie shortly before the break.
In the blink of an eye, Ilsinho created oceans of space by driving a ball over the retreating Stephen Kelly and top scorer Luiz Adriano was in. Schwarzer gallantly tried to narrow the angle with a desperate dash off his line, but Adriano skated past the otherwise excellent Aaron Hughes, rounded the goalkeeper and rolled the ball into the empty net.
Fulham began the second half with much more vigour and Damien Duff was posing particular problems with his maurauding runs down the right flank. The Irish winger was involved in one glorious passing move that Shakhtar would have been proud of as Fulham ferried the ball infield, Etuhu finding Gera and Zamora just failed to play a perfect return ball to the Hungarian as space opened up behind the Shakhtar back line.
Shakhtar were now choosing to operate on the break and Fulham sensed there was a chance of a second. Zamora snatched it in marvellously opportunistic fashion. Gera offered a glimpse of his remarkably quick feet again as a deft backheel freed Zamora and the former West Ham man smashed an unstoppable volley past Pyatov and in off the underside of the crossbar from 25 yards. The finish was all the more remarkable considering it came from his weaker foot.
Shakhtar seemed to wilt after that. Fulham could have had a third. Gera guided a header into the arms of Pyatov after a fine cross from Duff and Zamora nodded just wide after peeling away at the far post. Fulham being Fulham the final ten minutes were frantic and Hodgson’s side were indebted to a superb Schwarzer stop in injury time as he flung himself across goal to claw away a curler from Fernandinho. Such a slender lead sets the second leg up perfectly.
FULHAM (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Baird, Kelly, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Duff, Davies; Gera (Elm 89); Zamora. Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Marsh-Brown, Smalling, Greening, Riise, Nevland.
GOALS: Gera (3), Zamora (63).
SHAKHTAR DONETSK (4-2-3-1): Pyatov; Srna, Kucher, Rakitskiy, Rat; Fernandinho, T Hübschman (Kravchenko 78); Ilsinho, Jadson (Costa de Souza 75), Willian; Luiz Adriano. Subs (not used): Khudzhamov, Lewandowski, Gai, Gladkiy, Ishchenko.
BOOKED: Luiz Adriano, Srna.
GOAL: Luiz Adriano (32).
REFEREE: Serge Gumienny (Belgium).