A Cottage Classic

Fulham v Juventus

Craven Cottage, London

18 March 2010

Europa League – Round of 16, Second Leg

By Ben Santamaria

I’ve watched a bit of a sport of the past thirty years and in that time I’ve seen some terrific matches, be it the 1999 Preliminary Final at the ‘G, or the 2006 Ashes Test at the Adelaide Oval. Having signed up as a Fulham season-ticket holder upon arrival in the UK in 2007, it’s fair to say that until recently Fulham haven’t played their part in providing such classics.

Yet, since Roy Hodgson took over the managerial reigns in early 2008, slowly things have changed. From avoiding relegation in the last fifteen minutes of the season through a Danny Murphy header against Pompey, to picking up the scalps of Manchester United twice in 2009 and Liverpool once in that same year, we’ve been afforded a glimpse of the joy that the world game can bring.

Having finished seventh in the English Premier League in 2008/2009 and with Chelsea having won the FA Cup, Fulham gained a place in the Europa League for this campaign. The Europa League is the phoenix that rose from the ashes of the old UEFA Cup, Europe’s B-grade competition. And so this year, Craven Cottage has entertained such football luminaries as FK Vetra, FC Amkar Perm, CSKA Sofia and Shakhtar Donestk – hardly household names.

One of the treats though, that the structure of European football throws up, is that the best teams to drop out of the Champions League (Europe’s “A-game”) come down to join the Europa League after Christmas.

And it was through this twist that Fulham found itself drawn to play Juventus – the most successful club in Italy over the past century and, until its fall from grace during the past decade, one of the most successful in the world. Juve have internationals on all lines from their keeper Buffon (unavailable for this fixture), to Cannavaro the Italian skipper who lifted the last World Cup, to Trezeguet and Del Piero up forward. They are quality. Full stop.

And so, with the first leg of the tie being played in Turin last Thursday night, it was hardly surprising to see them put Fulham to the sword and take a commanding 3-1 lead into the second leg. Fulham had no answer to Juventus’ silky skills.

And so to Craven Cottage where Fulham’s best chance was to hold the Italians goal-less and hope for a 2-0 win. An early kick-off at 6pm to accommodate Italian television meant that south-west London was heaving during peak hour traffic even more so than a usual Thursday eve. The masses (25,000) were making their way through the back streets to the Cottage by the River, not so much in any hope of seeing Fulham progress, but more to make the most of a rare opportunity to see European masters grace the turf in Bishop’s Park.

And when Davide Trezeguet scored with only 1minute42 seconds on the clock, meaning Fulham would have to score four goals to progress, the sinking feeling that normally strikes after such an early away score was somewhat mollified by a sense of expectation – we all knew this would happen.

But the Whites’ heads did not drop as you’d expect. The Hammersmith stand raised a decibel or two and Bobby Zamora raised his game – taking control of a neat ball into the area, he turned the Italian skipper on a sixpence and slotted Fulham’s first: one all on the night, 2-4 on aggregate. Fulham continued to drive forward and Juve appeared a little impotent. Zoltan Gera took possession of the ball in the 27th minute and, turning to make his strike on goal, was shunted to the ground by Cannavaro. The referee deemed it a goal scoring opportunity and a professional foul and, with that, Cannavaro saw red and that was the last we saw of him. Zamora struck the resulting free kick sweetly, aiming for the top left corner, but Antonia Chimenti, Juve’s third choice keeper who gave up a 3-0 lead in Serie A last weekend, defied his age (and gravity) in palming the ball out for a corner. The cries of “Dodgy Keeper” that had wafted from the Putney End seemed a little mis-placed.

Still level on the night, the momentum had taken a massive shift since the opening Juventus’ goal. There was a spring in the step of each Fulham player. Just before half time, Davies pulled the ball back from the left into the path of Gera who tapped in to send Fulham into the lead 2-1 at the break. The Fulham throng did not want the half to end, such was their momentum and the two minutes of injury time just did not seem just.

As the clouds gathered, and showers started to break out over the Thames, hope reigned again.

Any fears that the Cottagers would lose that first half momentum were quickly dispelled as the players returned to the pitch. The noise was deafening and could be heard by my wife, back at our home, some kilometers away. Inside the first four minutes of the new half, a sweet back heel from Gera sent Duff free inside the area, he crossed from the right only to see the ball deflected out of play by the hand of Diego. Unlike another famous hand of a Diego, the referee spotted this one and had no choice but to point to the spot. Gera stepped up and suddenly it was 3-1 on the night and 4-4 on aggregate. Game on.

The next forty minutes are a bit of a blur. Fulham, a man up, played controlled football the likes of which are rarely seen at Craven Cottage. Patiently waiting for possession and then, when they had it, holding the ball up and moving from left to right where Konchesky seemed to have more time than Greenwich. Peppering the Juventus goal area on each attack, Fulham seemed intent on attacking and not allowing themselves the comfort of sitting back and waiting for penalties.

Roy Hodgson, not wanting to miss this chance for glory, brought Clint Dempsey, the American, on for Stephen Kelly in the 71st minute and he almost scored with his first touch – a header which the aging keeper again managed to keep out.

English stadia have been all-seaters since the Hillsborough tragedy of 1989, but to a person, all seats were vacant for the last 15 minutes of the game – the crowd at Craven Cottage on their feet and bouncing to each home-attack.

Unsurprisingly it fell to the substitute to clinch the matter – outside the area, on the right hand side, Dempsey saw the keeper leave his line and dared to chip him. As the scorer would say after the game, 9 times out of 10 it wouldn’t go in but you have to take your chances sometimes. The ball found the top left corner and hysteria swept SW6. The Hammersmith end led a stirring rendition of one of its favourites: “He scores with his left, he scores with his right, that boy Clint Dempsey makes Drogba look *****”.

Now leading 4-1 on the night and 5-4 on aggregate, with four minutes left to play, Fulham merely had to ice the clock which they did with great care, causing such frustration to the visiting team that Zebina was sent off in the final minute of the game for lashing out at Damien Duff, protecting the ball in the corner, reducing Juventus to 9 men. The noise was such that you could not hear the referee’s final whistle, but had to take the players doing their lap of honour as confirmation that the tie was over and Fulham had won a famous night.

I love my Aussie rules and my Carlton, but last night I discovered fully why the world game means so much to so many – cup ties, away goals, minnows against masters, together an amazing combination that other sports will struggle to match.

Comments

  1. Peter Flynn says:

    Ben,

    Ripper report and result. Thrilling.

    I’m Chelsea (don’t hold that against me) but certainly looking forward to seeing Fulham progress further.

    Is Al Fayed still the Fulham owner?

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