This was another awesome performance from a side not given much chance of progressing past a tricky group back in the summer. Fulham’s Europa League campaign has gone from being third in Roy Hodgson’s list of priorities to top of pile as his plucky side have overcome injuries and injustice to stand within striking distance of reaching the semi-finals. They might have had one foot in the last four this evening but for a late header from Alexander Madlung that made next week’s trip to Wolfsburg a little more treacherous than it otherwise might have been.
Fulham had earlier fashioned a two-goal lead from some sizzling approach play that had the Craven Cottage faithful purring their approval. More boisterous than normal, the home fans were going potty when Damien Duff drove home a second to rock the German champions, who – like Fulham – were appearing in the last eight of a major European competition for the very first time. The Irishman profited from superb hold-up play from Bobby Zamora, who had earlier curled Hodgson’s side into the lead with a lovely strike from the edge of the box.
Fulham’s dominant second half performance was in stark contrast to a pedestrian first period where they conceded too much possession and space to their opponents. Wolfsburg didn’t create too many chances but there was a worrying pattern developing that suggested Edin Dzeko, passed fit to play despite a knee injury picked up in training on Monday, and the Brazilian Grafite might profit sooner or later. The Bosnian striker had the German side’s best opening, screwing a shot wide from the edge of the box after losing his balance, and Christian Gentner saw a deflected shot roll gently through to Mark Schwarzer.
Fulham were rather fitful going forward in the first half. Zoltan Gera’s potshot from distance was the first effort to trouble Diego Benaglio, who smothered the Hungarian’s effort at the second attempt, and the Wolfsburg goalkeeper soon had to palm away a Clint Dempsey drive. After a nice interchange between Dzeko and Grafite created a half-chance for the Brazilian, Fulham finished the half with a late flurry. Dickson Etuhu climbed highest to a meet a Duff corner but the Nigerian couldn’t keep his header down.
There was a much greater purpose about Fulham in the second half as if the Whites were convinced that they needed to take a lead to Germany for the second leg. Hodgson’s side passed the ball with more fluency and played at a significantly higher tempo and they punished Zvejzdan Misimovic for missing a glorious one-on-one chance by taking the lead just before the hour.
A swift Fulham attack saw Gera drive infield and link up with Zamora who drifted dangerously inside, with Wolfsburg’s attention caught by the clever running of Duff outside him. The former West Ham striker switched the ball on his favoured left foot and curled a fabulous effort beyond Benaglio into the far corner. Better was to come as Fulham scored a second just four minutes later.
A lovely move began with a driving run from Paul Konchesky, who beat his man down the left, and crossed for Zamora. He did brilliantly to retain possession with his back to goal and then teed up Duff, who drove clinically into the net from twelve yards. This was almost too good to be true.
Fulham couldn’t hold onto their precious two-goal lead as the visitors poured forward in search of an away goal that would dramatically alter the complexion of the tie. They served notice of their threat as, first Obafemi Martins and then Grafite, squandered good opportunities before poor marking allowed Madlung to nod home a quickly taken corner in the last minute of normal time.
Still, as my friend said as we walked out of the Cottage, Fulham only led Shakhtar 2-1 after the first leg and prevailed. Beating the German champions can’t be sniffed at.
FULHAM (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Davies, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy (Baird 87), Duff, Dempsey; Gera; Zamora. Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Smalling, Greening, Riise, Elm, Nevland.
GOALS: Zamora (59), Duff (63).
WOLFSBURG (4-1-3-2): Benaglio; Pekarik, (Martins, 74), Schafer, Madlung, Barzagli; Josue; Riether, Misimovic, Gentner (Dejagah, 84); Dzeko, Grafite. Subs (not used): Lenz, Simunek, Hasebe, Johnson, Rever.
GOAL: Madlung (89).
REFEREE: Damir Skomina (Slovenia).