It was both late and cruel. Diego Forlan finally ended Fulham’s exhilirating European odyssey with a deflected close-range winner deep into the second period of extra time in Hamburg. Roy Hodgson’s side, who had done remarkably well to last ten months in the inagural Europa League and outsed many far more established names on their way to the final, were more than a match for their Spanish opponents but the former Manchester United striker’s clinical finishing meant the dream ended in heartbreak.
There was a touch of fortune about both Forlan’s goals. The man who had ended Liverpool’s participation in the competition, also in extra-time at Anfield, crept between full back and centre back to steer a scuffed Sergio Aguero shot into the net as Fulham appealed in vain for an offside flag. With just minutes of extra time remaining, and Fulham still level thanks to a fine far-post volley from Simon Davies, Aguero scampered away from Aaron Hughes and found Forlan with a low cross. The Argentine’s instinctive shot might not have troubled Mark Schwarzer but for an untimely deflection off Brede Hangeland that took it out of the Australian’s reach.
Disappointment might have been the overriding emotion at the horrible finality of it all, but Fulham had already done themselves justice. Their determination was epitomised by the bravery of Bobby Zamora, who probably wouldn’t have risked further injury to his troublesome Achilles had this not been a showpiece final. The striker was in obvious discomfort every time he turned but he battled on gamely for 55 minutes and his persistence led to Fulham’s equaliser.
It looked as though Zamora’s eagerness to take another touch when rounding a defender might have wasted a glorious chance, but Fulham kept the ball alive, ferrying it across to the excellent Zoltan Gera. Luis Perea missed his chance to clear the Hungarian’s deep cross and Davies drove a majestic finish past teenage goalkeeper David de Gea before wheeling away in exultation. The Welsh winger, whose last season and a half have been played to be injury, had timed his first two European goals to perfection. One sparked the semi-final comeback against Hamburg and the other levelled the final.
Fulham were perhaps lucky to be lvel after Atletico, desperate to take this opportunity to step out of Real Madrid’s shadow, had dominated the first period. Forlan struck the far post with a low shot after a moment of carelessness from Danny Murphy had presented Aguero with the sort of opportunity to run at a defence that he craves. Schwarzer made two good saves from a Reyes free-kick and a Forlan shot either side of the opening goal and there’s no doubt the Londoners would have been happy to hear the half-time whistle.
Hodgson’s side were much improved after the interval and looked far more comfortable in possession. They had the better of the immediate exchanges in the second half, with Gera’s seemingly ceaseless running dragging defenders out of position. An instinctive Davies shot from the edge of the box drew a fine reaction save from de Gea as Fulham failed to press home their dominance. Atletico slowly crept back into the contest, and whilst Forlan and Aguero were always a threat, they were well marshalled by Hughes and Hangeland.
Penalties appeared to be the most likely way to decide it until Forlan’s late intervention. Hodgson, beaten in a UEFA Cup final with Inter Milan back in 1997, took defeat as graciously as you’d expect. It was hard, but this was yet another night when you had be proud of Fulham.
ATLETICO MADRID (4-4-2): de Gea; Ujfalusi, Antonio Lopez, Perea, Alvaro Dominguez; Pablo Assuncao, Raul Garcia, Reyes (Salvio 78), Simao (Jurado 68); Forlan, Aguero (Valera 119). Subs (not used): Robles, Camacho, Juanito, Cabrera.
BOOKED: Raul Garcia, Forlan.
GOALS: Forlan (32, 116).
FULHAM (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Baird, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy (Greening 118), Duff (Nevland 84), Davies; Gera; Zamora (Dempsey 55). Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Smalling, Pantsil, Dikgacoi, Riise.
GOAL: Davies (37).
REFEREE: Nicola Rizzoli (Italy).