All the fears about just how costly Alexander Madlung’s late header at Craven Cottage last week could prove to be were expunged in the blink of an eye. The tie delicately poised, Fulham’s travelling fans wondered whether the concession of that away goal might make Roy Hodgson’s side more adventurous. But, even in their wildest of dreams – which this season seems set to resemble – they couldn’t have envisiged the impudence with which Bobby Zamora steered Fulham closer to a semi-final place in the very first minute.
There was no sign of the tight Achilles that had so worried Fulham’s medical staff when he backheeled a Zoltan Gera brilliantly to create a yard of space inside the Wolfsburg box. If there was a touch of Johann Cryuff about the exquisite turn, the controlled finish carried the confidence of a man who has scored 19 goals this term and must surely have forced his way into Fabio Capello’s thoughts by now. It stretched Fulham’s aggregate advantage to 3-1: a lead they never looked like losing.
So Fulham’s unlikely European odyssey continues with a trip to Hamburg in a fortnight’s time. It began as something of a distraction to the primary priority of preservering Premier League status and Hodgson treated the early stages of the competition as such, utilising the full extent of his still small squad, as his plucky side fought their way through a tough group. They surprised the holders, Shakhtar Donetsk, in the first knockout round and produced a comeback of an epic proportions to dispatch Juventus and reach the quarter finals.
Having come back from 4-1 down to defeat Italy’s Old Lady, it was little wonder that Fulham travelled in good heart. That belief manifested itself in their play this evening, marrying the good old-fashioned hard yards that Hodgson demands with a sprinkling of style. Wolfsburg, without Madlung at the heart of their defence, had little answer to the movement and zest of Zamora and Gera. The Hungarian came close to stretching Fulham’s lead with a seventh-minute volley and Danny Murphy’s shot was juggled by the iffy Diego Benaglio.
Wolfsburg never really found the rythm you might have expected from a home side chasing the tie. Whilst Brede Hangeland effectively marshalled the dangerous Edin Dzeko, credit must go to the excellent Dickson Etuhu, who broke up sporadic German attacks with real zeal, and the understated Aaron Hughes. Grafite did have a goal rightly ruled out for offside after the power behind Andrea Barzagli’s volley had surprised Mark Schwarzer, but the Australian goalkeeper was largely untroubled throughout the contest.
Such was Lorenz-Gunther Kostner’s frustration at his side’s inability to make inroads, he introduced Ashkan Dejagah, a wide player who looked frighteningly similar to Hameur Bouazza, for a right back but while the substitute’s arrival briefly perked up Wolfsburg, their only attack was snuffed out by Hughes. Fulham finished the first half stronger – and a lighteningly quick counter-attack culminated with Zamora pulling the back agonisingly behind Gera.
Wolfsburg had to get better after the break, but their improvement was actually neglible. Dzeko and Grafite, whose partnership’s potency could previously have been measured by a lovers’ tiff on the edge of the box after they had succeeded in impeding each other after a first-half cross, flittered in and out of the contest – but the Bosnian was expertly shadowed by Hughes, who blocked the striker when he feinted his way past Chris Baird.
Fulham looked the more likely to score the next goal: a fact artfully illustrated by a brilliant Murphy through ball that sent Zamora scampering through on goal. Only an unfortunate touch off his shoulder interrupted his progress towards the Wolfsburg goal, but Zamora still managed to test Benaglio. The red shirts passed with the ball with consumate ease – and this was decidedly irritating the home crowd, who were much more passive than in a boisterous first period.
When Dzeko did find a yard of space in the Fulham box, he made some alarming poor decisions. Electing to pass instead of shoot when Hughes let the ball bounce ranked pretty high, especially as his ball across eluded Grafite. Obafemi Martins was thrown on after an hour but toiled ineffectively down the right for the most part. Wolfsburg’s attacking ineptitude was neatly incapsulated by a wayward Dejagah drive that flew high into the stands.
Dzeko did eventually force Schwarzer into a fine tumbling save from a corner but that sparked Fulham’s most productive period of the whole game. Murphy curled fractions over from the edge of the box and a delicious through ball from Zamora sent Davies in to seal victory only for Benaglio to somehow send the Welshman’s shot over the bar with his right foot. Zamora played provider again six minutes later, slipping Konchesky in down the left and as Murphy seemed set to seal victory, Barzagli appeared from nowhere to clear off the line.
Fulham being Fulham there was still a heartbeat-quickening finale to survive. Dzeko dragged a shot against the far post from fifteen yards and Grafite stabbed the rebound goalwards. A stranded Schwarzer watched as Hangeland incredibly backheeled the ball to safety from the goal-line. To dwell on this late drama would inject a degree of worry into this latest Hodgson success that simply wasn’t present. The surprise wasn’t that Fulham won, it was just how comfortable they were.
WOLFSBURG (4-1-3-2): Benaglio; Pekarik (Dejagah 35), Schafer, Simunek (Rever 75), Barzagli; Josue; Riether, Gentner (Martins 62), Misimovic; Dzeko, Grafite. Subs (not used): Lenz, Hasebe, F. Johnson, Schindzielorz.
BOOKED: Dzeko, Dejagah, Josue.
FULHAM (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Baird, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Duff, Davies (Riise 86); Gera (Nevland 82); Zamora. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Kelly, Smalling, Dikgacoi, Greening.
BOOKED: Baird, Konchesky.
GOAL: Zamora (1).
REFEREE: Viktor Kassai (Hungary).
REFEREE: Viktor Kassai (Hungary).