This was far from a vintage Fulham performance. Martin Jol put his trust in what was, minus Bobby Zamora, his strongest side and they delivered a courageous defensive performance to progress to the group stages surviving a thorough and frantic examination from Dnipro.
The Ukrainians looked far more threatening in front of their home fans than at Craven Cottage a week ago. Juande Ramos, under pressure after Dnipro’s disappointing start to their domestic campaign, told a pre-match press conference that not only was his job safe but that the tie was far from over. That confidence seemed justified as Dnipro attacked with real vigour and pressed Fulham deep inside their own half. With Giuliano and Yevhen Konoplyanka playing in far more advanced positions than during the first leg, the Ukrainians quickly exploited alarming gaps between Fulham’s midfield and a deep defence.
Konoplyanka, who looked a cultured midfielder when he wasn’t rolling around in apparent agony on the floor, was the home side’s creative hub. There seemed more of a thrust to the Dnipro attacks than at the Cottage and just to illustrate the point, the Dnipro playmaker forced Schwarzer into a low save after twisting and turning past Chris Baird, who had been restored to right back in place of Philippe Senderos. Fulham were forced into a defensive reshuffle when John Arne Riise picked up a groin strain after falling awkwardly on the poor surface, although Matthew Briggs delivered a commanding performance as if to underline his international credentials after being called up to the England under-21 squad.
Fulham looked unusually shaky from set-pieces, though, and their nervousness only increased after Dnipro took the lead. Hangeland inadvertently glanced on a Serhiy Kravchenko corner and Evgeniy Shakhov bundled the ball past Mark Schwarzer at the back post. The goal sparked another period of sustained home pressure, although Fulham’s defence did well to restrict Dnipro to long-range efforts. Kravchenko sent a shot agonisingly wide of Schwarzer’s goal and Konoplyanka sliced his 22-yard effort horribly wide after a promising move from the hosts. Konoplyanka almost punished Sidwell for a crude challenge right on the edge of the box before half time but his curling free-kick was smartly tipped over by Schwarzer.
The pattern was largely the same in the second period. Fulham were on the back foot right the restart with Aaron Hughes excelling at the heart of the defence. He produced a terrific saving tackle to thwart a mazy run from Giuliano and recovered his footing sufficiently to block Samuel Inkoom’s low follow-up. The recalled right back had posed real problems from Fulham in the first half with his surging forward runs and he succeeded in tricking his way into the penalty area midway through the second period, only for Shakhov to shoot wastefully high.
Ramos made a double change, throwing on Strinich and Rotan in a bid to offer more of an attacking threat, and Dnipro kept pressing. Schwarzer almost carried a Kravchenko set-piece over his goal-line before Hangeland timed a challenge impeccably to end a Shakhov run, only for the ball to break to Rotan, who shot inches wide. Konoplyanka then sparked panic in the Fulham area as he cut in from the left and beat two defenders before his low cross eluded any blue shirts and rolled away to safety.
It was nerve-racking stuff but you felt Fulham’s continental experience served them well. Two years ago, they survived a similar second-half assault to eliminate Shakhtar Donetsk and they summoned similar resolves of courage here. When Schwarzer spilled a cross from Antonov dangerously inside his six-yard box, Baird bravely threw himself at Konoplyanka’s feet to clear the danger. Nikola Kalinic, who had spurned a hatful of second-half chances in the first leg, sent a free header wide from a corner as Fulham clung on for dear life. Their task might have been made easier had substitute Pajtim Kasami not contrived to miss an open goal from five yards after Damien Duff had done brilliantly to fashion a rare opening, but Fulham hardly ever do things the easy way.
This was far from a vintage performance. It was gutsy and determined and the relief was tangible at the final whistle. Fulham’s predatory instincts had secured a valuable first-leg lead and a well-drilled defence preserved it this evening.
DNIPRO (4-5-1): Lastuvka; Inkoom, Cheberyachko (Rotan 57), Denisov (Strinic 57), Mandiuk; Boateng, Konoplyanka, Kravchenko, Giuliano (Antonov 72), Shakhov; Kalinic. Subs (not used):Kanibolotskiy, Kulakov, Oliynyk, Zozulya.
GOAL: Shakhov (22).
FULHAM (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Baird, J.A. Riise (Briggs 21), Hughes, Hangeland; Sidwell, Murphy, Duff, Dempsey (Etuhu 80); Dembele (Kasami 71); Johnson. Subs (not used): Etheridge, Kelly, Senderos, Gecov.
BOOKED: Murphy, Baird.
REFEREE: Tom Hagen (Norway).