Not for the first time, a questionable red card in a European contest cost Fulham tonight. Not for the first time, controversy followed Swedish referee Martin Hanson. The official, who gave a debatable penalty to Steven Gerrard in the Champions’ League a few years ago and then failed to chalk off Thierry Henry’s winning goal in the World Cup play-offs that so incensed Ireland, ended a bright start by Fulham in Krakow when he sent off Mousa Dembele for tapping Gervasio Núñez on the shoulder. Whilst the Belgian was foolish in responding so aggressively to an impetuous tackle, the Argentinian made the most of minimal contact – clutching his head and rolling around the floor.
That the numerical advantage wasn’t cancelled out until the dying embers of the game, when Osman Chávez – who had previously escaped after some ferocious tackling – was dismissed for a second yellow card was remarkable. The luckiest man on the field was Ivica Iliev, who proceeded to be Wisla’s most potent threat with the ball at his feet, but only after launching himself studs-up at Brede Hangeland’s chest. The stand-in Fulham captain was stoical, but the yellow card seemed extraordinarily lenient.
Fulham offered little after Dembele departed after half an hour, perhaps understandably as they adjusted to the task of playing with ten man. They had initially seemed able to prize open the Poles quite easily, with Damien Duff’s powerful drive fisted away by Estonian goalkeeper Sergei Pareiko. A sweeping counter-attack did present the first half’s best chance to Dembele after Dickson Etuhu played him in down the inside-right channel, but Dembele’s tame shot was easily repelled by the home goalkeeper.
Gradually, Wisla grew in confidence and Iliev exerted ever greater influence. Cutting in from the right, where he front more space then in his conventional starting position, he gave young Matthew Briggs a serious examination and was at the heart of almost every home move. The Serbian striker came the closest to scoring before the break, albeit with the help of a hefty deflected off Hangeland, as his speculative shot looped over a stranded Mark Schwarzer and came crashing back off the crossbar. He twice tested Schwarzer from closer range, before the second half was delayed by an untimely floodlight failure.
Initially, Fulham’s pretty passing seemed unaffected by the absence of Dembele. But gradually, fatigue and a lack of leadership caught up with them. Given that victory here would have all but sealed their progression to the knockout stages, it was somewhat surprising that Martin Jol chose to rest the important trio of Danny Murphy, Clint Dempsey and Bobby Zamora. What they would have given for the latter imposing presence once Orlando Sa tweaked a hamstring, leaving Andy Johnson an isolated figure up front.
The home side cranked up the pressure and, after Schwarzer an audacious effort from Cezary Wilk, got the decisive goal on the hour mark. Fulham stood off Israeli striker David Biton and paid the penalty as he drove a low shot past Schwarzer and into the bottom corner from 20 yards. They then weathered a home storm as Wisla went in search of a second. The Australian goalkeeper had to be at his best to deny Andraz Kirm, who struck two shots from range, and Nunez went close to adding injury to insult. Fulham had plenty of possession towards the end, but not even Chavez’s late sending off could aid them in their fruitless search for a reply.
WISLA KRAKOW (4-4-2): Pareiko, Jaliens, Chavez, Lamey, Diaz, Gargula (Brud 79), Nunez, Kirm (Czekaj 90),Wilk, Biton, Illiev (Boguski 86). Subs (not used): Jovanic, Paljic, Jirsak, Genkov.
BOOKED: Iliev, Chavez.
SENT OFF: Chavez (87).
GOAL: Biton (60).
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Kelly, Briggs (Frei 87), Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Gecov (Sidwell 75), Dembele, Duff; Sa (Kasami 58), Johnson. Subs (not used): Etheridge, J. Riise, Baird, Trotta.
SENT OFF: Dembele (30).
REFEREE: Martin Hansson (Sweden).