There were many magical nights in Fulham’s incredible run to the Europa League final but one Craven Cottage evening that doesn’t get discussed as much as it arguably should is the night – eight years ago today – when Bobby Zamora and Damien Duff combined to defeat Wolfsburg in the quarter final first leg.
Going into the game, I remember being particularly worried that the Whites might not be able to match the phenomenal performance levels they produced in the previous round to complete that still scarcely believable comeback against the mighty Juventus. Wolfsburg, the reigning Bundesliga champions, travelled to London in good form despite mounting a poor defence of their title, which saw Felix Magath (remember him?) sacked, having won one of their last ten fixtures.
The first half was a nervy and rather pedestrian affair – as the enormity of the occasion had got to Roy Hodgson’s side. Fulham did well to largely nullify the visitors’ dangerous striking duo of Edin Dzeko and Grafite, but struggled to create many clear-cut chances themselves. It wouldn’t have been difficult to imagine Hodgson plaintively asking his players for more during the half-time team talk – and the Whites obliged with a much more adventurous and penetrative second half showing.
Zamora’s partnership with Zoltan Gera was pivotal to Fulham’s remarkable progress in Europe that year – and the pair combined beautifully to break the deadlock. The Hungarian’s perceptive pass to find Zamora floated fully 30 yards across field. It might not be remembered as instantaneously as his wonder strike against Shakhtar Donetsk, but it was a beautiful piece of finishing all the same – with the forward stirring yet more England talk with another lovely curler off his left side, making the most of a clever decoy run from Duff, who had intelligently drawn defenders away from the Fulham forward.
This correspondent felt Duff’s consistent excellence didn’t get the credit it deserved throughout that European adventure. His experience of the big occasion proved invaluable for an unfancied side who suddenly found themselves in the latter stages of the competition. Duff was always a handful for defenders – and the loss of that trademark pace that made him such a devastating winger at his peak – actually turned him into a more intelligent footballer. Like Zamora, the Irishman was on fire that year. Had the pair been fully fit for the final I firmly believe the outcome would have been different against Atletico Madrid.
It was Duff and Zamora who combined so smartly for the goal that gave Fulham some breathing space. The often underrated Paul Konchesky drove the Whites forward with an ambitious run down the left and Zamora held up the ball brilliantly before cushioning it perfectly into Duff’s pass – and the winger fired home clinically, as he often seemed to do, with a modicum of fuss from twelve yards. The joy was unconfined and the way Fulham were able to turn on at will against one of the continent’s leading sides convinced many that Hodgson’s men belonged at this level. People also forget that Simon Davies, lauded for his efforts later in that European run, turned in a great display at right back that night.
My match report that evening fretted about the consequences of Alex Madlung’s late header from a corner that handed Wolfsburg – whose squad featured future Fulham favourites Sasha Riether and Ashkan Dejagah – a precious away goal, but another Zamora moment of magic seconds into the return leg happily rendered that particular piece of sloppy defending academic. Those European nights at the Cottage were so special – and I’m sure I’m not the only Fulham fan who savours the memories of the Whites putting Europe’s best to the sword even now.