Nobody was quite sure what to expect tonight. Fulham, off-key in their opening game of the Premier League season against Aston Villa, had found it tough against Shakhtar Donetsk in the Europa League a couple of seasons ago and after Martin Jol had shuffled his pack with Wolves in mind, you would have been forgiven for thinking this might have been a tricky evening. But Clint Dempsey had other ideas. Shifted to a second striker position, the American’s brace gave Fulham a commanding lead to the Ukraine for the second leg.
To call it a comfortable victory would be stretching things. Dnipro looked a useful outfit, with plenty of pretty passing and technical skill. They had the pretty of a worrying opening and had Nikola Kalinic, recently signed from Blackburn Rovers, converted one of a few presentable second-half opportunities than Fulham’s prospects of progressing to the group stages might not be looking as rosy.
Jol opted to reconfigure his defence from the one that faced Villa at the weekend, with Matthew Briggs replacing John Arne Riise at left back and Stephen Kelly coming in for Phillipe Senderos. That saw Aaron Hughes shift across to partner Brede Hangeland in the centre of defence and neither newcomer wasted their opportunity to shine. Briggs has shown plenty of adventure in his European outings and wasted little time in getting forward to good effect here. Inside the opening five minutes, he galloped onto a pass from Hangeland and surprised former Fulham keeper Jan Lastuvka with an early shot that the Czech custodian had to turn away. Steve Sidwell had Lastuvka juggling a header from a corner, but it wasn’t until Briggs got in behind the Dnipro defence later in the half that Fulham threatened again.
From a quickly taken corner, Briggs took advantage of a mistake by Giuliano, who was Dnipro’s most potent threat at the other end of the pitch, to slalom his way to the byline and deliver a dangerous cross that was steered home by a sliding Aaron Hughes. Four minutes later, it was 2-0. A flowing move saw Steve Sidwell pop up on the right and his cross was clinically converted by an unmarked Dempsey, who had been afforded the freedom of the penalty area. It had been an edgy, uninspiring first half but Fulham headed into the half-time break with a healthy cushion.
Dempsey extended it – and seemingly put the tie beyond Juande Ramos’ side – just four minutes after the interval. The intelligent Kasami, who had buzzed around the Dnipro box all evening, came short to collect a Duff corner and his floated cross was glanced home by a superb Dempsey header. Fulham should have had a fourth before the evening was out but Bobby Zamora spooned a shot over the bar from six yards from a fine Kelly cross. There was even time for Dempsey to threaten a hat-trick, but his sliding finish to a fine team move found only the side netting.
The last half hour saw a sustained spell of Dnipro pressure as they went in search of a crucial away goal. Vitaliy Denisov shot just wide from 20 yards and Igor Denisev’s long-range drive forced Mark Schwarzer into a sprawling save, but Kalinic spurned their two best openings. Poor control allowed Fulham to crowd him out inside the six-yard box after a brilliant individual run, while he smashed a half-chance from a corner high into the Putney End.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Kelly, Briggs, Hughes, Hangeland; Sidwell, Murphy (Etuhu 67); Duff (Dembele 67), Kasami (Johnson 87), Dempsey; Zamora. Subs (not used): Etheridge, Senderos, Riise, Gecov.
BOOKED: Duff, Zamora.
GOALS: Hughes (38), Dempsey (43, 49).
DNIPRO (4-1-4-1): Lastuvka; Kulakov, Denisov, Cherberiachko, Mandziuk; Boateng (Zozulya 56); Konoplianka, Rotan, Giuliano (Oliynyk 70), Kravchenko; Kalinic. Subs (not used): Kanibolotskiy, Inkoom, Strinic, Shakov, Antonov.
BOOKED: Boateng, Olinynk.
REFEREE: Pavel Kralovec (Czech Republic)