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Petric loving life at Fulham

The latest edition of Halftime, Fulham’s magazine for their younger supporters, carries an interesting interview with Croatian forward Mladen Petric, who the fans have seen far too little of lately.

The former Hamburg forward started the season in terrific touch, scoring twice against Norwich after a terrific pre-season following his free transfer in the summer. Since being troubled by an untimely muscle injury, Petric has found starts harder to come by – especially after the arrival of Dimitar Berbatov in August – but his predatory instincts are a real benefit to the side, as shown by the manner in which he forced home Fulham’s third goal against West Ham in injury time last week.

Petric admits he hardly needed convincing to join Fulham having played against them in the legendary Europa League semi-final, scoring Hamburg’s goal with a powerful free-kick in the second leg, and after playing under Martin Jol at the German side. He also got a favourable first impression of Craven Cottage, which he described as ‘not like most grounds – it’s nice and traditional’.

The 32 year-old says he’s really enjoying life in south west London:

Yes, of course! I had a fantastic pre-season and then I made a good start to the new campaign in the Barclays Premier League. I was a bit unlucky with a small muscle injury but now I am fit again. I hope to get a bit more time on the pitch in the second half of the season and I will do my best in training to show the gaffer that I deserve it.

Petric is also relishing the opportunity to test himself in the Premier League, which he admitted was always a lifelong aspiration. He’s already troubled some of the top defences – having played a key part in Fulham’s second goal at Old Trafford back in August and scored against Manchester City at Craven Cottage.

I don’t know if it’s [the Premier League] the hardest, but it’s the best league in the world. There are so many good players here and so many superstars at each club. If you compare it to Germany, only Bayern Munich really have the big names.

Petric, who first shot to prominence with Basel and Grasshoppers in Switzerland, has made his unique bow and arrow celebration famous – and the Fulham fans will be hoping to see a lot more of it before the season’s out.

I am thinking of stopping it! It started as a celebration after the birth of my daughter. But the fans seem to like it and want me to do it if I score so maybe I will keep it!

The striker is targeting a higher finish than last season and insists he’s not given up on the possibility of European football returning to the Cottage. Petric might have had to fight for a first team place after his injury lay-off but his perseverance and reading of the game – not to mention his tireless running up front – make him a handy weapon for Jol to have at his disposal during the second half of the season.

What a night

Dan’s already written his review of the game but I did just want to say a couple of things about last night;

  • whoever started singing “Stand up, if you still believe” I could kiss you – you brought a tear to my eye and I will credit you for the result almost as much as I will credit the players and Roy.
  • thank you to the stewards for not trying to make us sit down for the last 20-25 minutes, that was much appreciated and I do wonder if us all standing helped the cause in some way.
  • how dignified was Roy after the final whistle? He shook Moniz’s hand without a hint of a smile on his face, and then strolled back to the Cottage to leave the players to enjoy the atmosphere. Forget Manager of the Year – he’s my Man of the Year too.
  • I thought Aaron Hughes played a bit of a blinder. I’m ashamed to say that I don’t always notice him (that’s more to do with the fact that I sit in H2 and am too short to see what happens in the far corner most of the time than anything else) but I shall be watching him constantly now as without him, last night could’ve been a very different story.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a holiday due to start on May 12th which I need to re-arrange.

‘Proud’ Roy salutes super Fulham

No wonder Roy Hodgson’s proud. Little old Fulham in a European final. When do I wake up?

I do know the club has had some bad times. It’s been a wonderful journey and it’s an achievement as a coach I am very proud of. I have been lucky in my career with some lucky moments but the next one is the best one.

To reach a European final, I don’t care if you’re a top-four team or Fulham, it’s an amazing achievement. I know I’ll remember this night and many nights like it.

This team has produced better results and better football than we’re entitled to. We are in the final for no other reason than we have played very well in some difficult games.

We made a major piece of history here tonight. The atmosphere is something we will remember for a long time. I’m a little bit drained of emotion. You go through a roller coaster out there but cannot be more delighted than I am with the performance. The time at Fulham has been quite magical for me. I established a rapport with the chairman, who has been very good and given me the backing I needed.

And the fans, right from the off, even during the moments when it was not going too well, were still behind us. That is reward for those fans who will now watch their team in the Europa League final.

It was a great performance because it would have been so easy to have lost our heads after Petric’s great goal. It was fairly even but we are suddenly one down and an away goal [down]. It would have been easy to forget our plans but we didn’t and our movement was very good.

At half-time we were determined to play our game as we planned and hope it would work and with a bit of fortune that is what happened. The character of this team has been proved time and time again. They consistently surprise me that they continue to show such character. Normally such success softens you and you are not so determined to get such success.

The stadium in Hamburg is one that can suit teams that play good football. I don’t think having been there before is an advantage but the city was wonderful and it was a wonderful playing surface. Madrid have excellent players and it’s a stadium for good players.

Hodgson hopes Bobby Zamora will be fit for Fulham’s 63rd game of the season.

The injection on Bobby worked quite well but he was beginning to feel the effects. Now we have two weeks to get [him] fit for the final.

Gera guides Fulham to final

In a stirring seven minutes at Craven Cottage last night, Fulham wrote their names into footballing folklore. Even without this exceptional European run, Roy Hodgson would have long been revered on the banks of the Thames for taking London’s friendliest club from the brink of relegation to seventh place in less than eighteen months. But, with a terrific blend of hard work and tactical know-how, Hodgson has steered his side to a first major European final in Fulham’s history.

Perhaps the most revealing part of their success was that Fulham once again triumphed against the odds. Bookmakers would have given you very long odds had you suggested back in the summer that they would be preparing to end their season in Hamburg at the Europa League final. Dreadful refereeing decisions, injuries, a tricky group and even an Icelandic volcano, threatened to derail Fulham’s European ambitions, but the Whites still managed to navigate a way through. That they still had the spirit to overcome the shock of Mladen Petric’s terrific free-kick is a testament to the belief Hodgson has instilled in his team.

Lesser sides might have crumbled given the gravity of giving up an away goal to a German side. The free-kick might have seemed harsh: Danny Murphy’s foul on Ze Roberto probably wouldn’t have been recognised by a Premier League official, but Mark Schwarzer was left helpless by both the flight and power of Petric’s perfect free-kick. The Australian goalkeeper might think he could have got closer to it and for a while it looked as though this might be the end of an incredible odyssey.

Petric, whose fitness was no longer a doubt after the Croatian was only fit enough for a cameo role from the bench in the first leg, became more and more involved dropping into gaps just behind the dangerous Ruud van Nistelrooy. The visitors looked more comfortable on the ball and the lively Jonathan Pitroipa spurned two good chances to put the tie beyond Fulham: he shot wide after a mazy run and then was flagged offside as he bore down on goal, having gone too early.

Fulham looked rather listless in attack. Bobby Zamora, clearly only half fit at best struggled to get any change out of the impressive Jerome Boateng – apparently poised to join Manchester City in the summer – and only had one sight of goal. It came in the third minute and Frank Rost was out at his feet almost as soon as Zoltan Gera’s return pass had presented Zamora with an opening. Damien Duff scuffed a shot wide from outside the box but it was Hamburg who played with more urgency and carried the greater threat.

Hodgson’s half-time words invigorated his side and they saw much more of the ball in the early part of the second period, even without fashioning too many chances. Clint Dempsey replaced Zamora and immediately worried the Hamburg defence with his direct running: Boateng booked for what was almost a kung-fu kick on the American on the by-line. Fulham almost scored from the free-kick, with Duff dragging a shot wide from Paul Konchesky’s clever delivery.

David Jarolim tested Schwarzer with a long-range shot and, as the clock ticked on, there was a tangible sense of desperation about Fulham’s quest for an equaliser. The Hammersmith End, schooled in the art of European comebacks after that scarcely credible turnaround against Juventus, implored Fulham fans to ‘stand up if you still believe.’ Affirmation arrived in fairly scrappy circumstances. Simon Davies, looking like a candidate to be replaced as Hodgson readied a substitute on the sidelines, started a move in midfield and was on hand to flick a forward ball from Danny Murphy brilliantly beyond Guy Demel before prodding a finish past Rost. All the crucial touches took place off the floor, which, although unusual for Hodgson’s side, offered a reminder of the Welshman’s wonderful technique.

Davies was no longer running on empty. His persistence won a corner and his own delivery caused carnage in the Hamburg penalty area. The Germans failed to clear it and the ball bounced off Demel and fell invitingly for Gera, who has quietly had a storming season, to swivel and steer home a second.As ecstacy unfolded all around, I wondered if Fulham had scored too early.

Hamburg threw on another forward and Fulham threw bodies in the way. The last ten minutes took an eternity. Even then, van Nistelrooy – superbly quelled by Brede Hangeland all evening – had a chance to continue his fine scoring record against Fulham. Somehow, though, the Dutchman managed to screw his shot wide from six yards out.

A raw, racuous party began at the final whistle. The man who’d been coming since the sixties told me in tears that he never thought he’d see anything like this. As the players raised their arms in triumph, I spotted Hodgson, ever the gentleman, making his way around the pitch. Not to celebrate, but commiserating with the disconsolate Hamburg players. Fulham’s seemingly neverending season now heads towards a fabulous finale: Atletico Madrid await in Hamburg for the final on May 12.

FULHAM (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Pantsil (Nevland 75), Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Duff, Davies; Gera; Zamora (Dempsey 57). Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Smalling, Dikgacoi, Greening, Riise.

BOOKED: Dempsey, Hangeland.

GOALS: Davies (69), Gera (76).

HAMBURG (4-4-2): Rost; Demel, Aogo, J. Boateng, Mathijsen; Jarolim (Rozenhal 90), Ze Roberto, Tesche (Rincon 56; Guerrero 79); Petric, van Nistelrooy. Subs (not used): Hesl, Schulz, Arslan, Berg.

BOOKED: J. Boateng, Rost.

GOAL: Petric (22).

REFEREE: Cuneyt Cakir (Turkey).

ATTENDANCE: 25,700

Up next: Hamburg (h)

Plenty of unanswered questions abound ahead of tonight’s semi-final second leg against Hamburg. Fulham’s biggest night in the Europa League this season (though we’ve been saying that with each passing round) is almost here and yet there’s a sense of uncertainty and, dare I say it, a bit of foreboding too.

The Whites have always been a nearly side. Never have we progressed this far in European competition and, as Mohamed Al-Fayed has said already today, much of the credit for that must go to Roy Hodgson, who seems to specialise in achieving more than seems possible. But Fulham are also something of a nearly side. Even the trip to Wembley in 1975 was tinged with a bit of sadness as an excellent start gave way to disappointing failure. Our last semi-final, that ridiculous Sunday evening jaunt to Birmingham to face Chelsea in the FA Cup, definitely had a sense of anti-climax about it.

The tie remains delicately balanced after the goalless draw in Hambrug a week ago. That was an exceptional performance and a fine result, but the quirks of the away goals system mean that a single Hamburg goal tonight – always a possibility with the likes of van Nistelrooy, Petric, Berg and Guerrero in the side – would tilt the tie very definitely in the Germans’ favour. The big question is how the sacking of Bruno Labbadia, after a 5-1 defeat by Hoffenheim at the weekend, will impact upon Hamburg. The new manager (or in this case, promoted assistant) effect might just spur the Hamburg players on to produce a big performance.

Fulham know precisely what is needed tonight. They’ll need to remain just as disciplined as they were in Germany, but be a little more adventurous with the ball. That shouldn’t prove too difficult as Hodgson’s sides, whilst difficult to beat anywhere, are often more progressive at the Cottage. The key, of course, remains the balance between defensive solidity and carrying a threat up front, something which might prove tougher than normal should Bobby Zamora fail a fitness test on his troublesome Achilles.

If you’d have asked a Hammersmith End critic last season just how important Zamora was to the success of the Fulham side, they might have laughed and told you that he was useless. Goals have gone in this year for the rejuvanted forward, but it remains as much as his insatiable work rate and ability to bring others into play that troubles defenders as much as his goalscoring. Should Bobby not make it, there may be a chance for Erik Nevland to deliver a memorable send off just a couple of weeks before he prepares to finish his playing career back at Viking. The Norwegian’s scored some valuable goals in his time at the Cottage.

Midfield will once again be a key area. The way in which Dickson Etuhu and Danny Murphy have combined in the centre of the park has seen off some illiustrous foes already in this competition. The Nigerian was immense against Juventus here and Murphy’s clever passing was one of the reasons why Hodgson’s side looked so comfortable against Wolfsburg in the quarter final. The Fulham captain might not have hit the incredible heights of last season but he remains the heartbeat of this side. If he can use his experience of big European nights to set the right tempo and get the likes of Damien Duff and Clint Dempsey on the ball, then Fulham have a chance of ruining Hamburg’s hopes of a happy homecoming for the final in May.

MY FULHAM XI (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Duff, Dempsey; Gera; Zamora. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Kelly, Smalling, Davies, Riise, Nevland, Elm.