Twelve years ago tonight, we saw some of the finest football ever played at Craven Cottage. But it wasn’t courtesy of the men in white. The metronomic passing and mesmorising movement of Shakhtar Donetsk will live as long in the memory as the savage strike from Bobby Zamora that ultimately settled a fascinating first leg in the Europa League second round. The Ukrainian outfit were absolutely incredible but somehow lost a game they were utterly controlling thanks to a bolt from the blue by Fulham’s much-maligned number nine.
There were so many stories to come from Fulham’s remarkable run all the way to the final of the Europa League. The partnership between Zoltan Gera and Zamora in the final third – which only flourished in the aftermath of Andy Johnson being ‘literally banjoed’ – was one. The pair, who had already linked up wonderfully to send the Whites into the knockout stages on a snowy Swiss night before Christmas, combined magnificently to put Fulham ahead against the defending champions after just three minutes and then again in the second half for Zamora’s stunning winner. In between, Shahkhtar played spell-binding stuff that the awesome Ajax side of the seventies would have been proud of.
Their ball retention was almost unparalleled as they worked wonderful triangles right across the pitch. Mircea Lucescu’s men were far from an unknown quantity given that they had held aloft the UEFA Cup the previous season, but the names of their expert technicians were not as familiar to an English audience as they are now. Three of their key players became household names in the Premier League. Fernandinho pulled the strings in midfield and drew a superb stoppage-time save from Mark Schwarzer. William lined up on the left wing and Douglas Costa came on for the final twenty minutes or so. They had a brilliant all-Brazilian front five, with Jadson’s decoy run allowing Ilsinho and Luiz Adriano to link up for a lovely leveller, and the experience of the evergreen Darijo Srna, who bombed forward from right back.
Fulham were virtual spectators for much of the first half, penned back deep in their own penalty area by wave after wave of well-constructed Shakhtar moves. The visitors popped it around like it was a training session but seemed to relax after securing the away goal. Hodgson instructed his troops to reprise their electric start, when they had caught the Ukrainians cold with a couple of bold attacks, after half time and be bolder in playing around the press that had largely nullified the likes of Danny Murphy. The pep talk worked, although Zamora’s rocket from range just after the hour still seemed as if it came from nowhere.
Brede Hangeland rolled a forward ball into the feet of Gera, whose clever backheel gave Zamora space to run between the Shakhtar back line. The striker, enjoying a far more productive second season at Craven Cottage, let fly with a venomous drive from fully 25 yards that clipped the crossbar on its way in. It flew past an astonished Andriy Pyatov in the blink of an eye. Olexander Zuber, who was supposed to be marking Zamora, described it as ‘a crazy shot’. He was right and he shouldn’t feel too bad; Bobby was just on a different level that year as Fabio Cannavaro would discover in the quarter final. The fact that his screamer came off his weaker right foot, as he demonstrated by immediately miming his thumping drive in front of the Hammersmith End in celebration, added to the sense of wonder.
Lucescu insisted afterwards that his side, who were denied entry to Harrods in the build up to the game to it a bit of needle, shouldn’t have lost. He was right and suggested things would be different on the banks of the Kalmius in the second leg. Again, the revered Romanian coach was correct in a manner of speaking. Shakhtar produced an arguably even better display of two-touch football in front of their home fans but Fulham eliminated them after Hangeland headed an away goal in the first half and Hodgson’s men defended manfully after a second half equaliser. The two games were captivating tactical tussles and unfancied Fulham were in the last sixteen. Little did the football world know that the story was only just beginning.