It really is game on in the Europa League Round of 32 as Fulham take a one-goal lead into the second leg. At the same time Bobby Zamora did his England chances no harm with a neat assist before firing in the winner – the best goal Cottagers fans have celebrated at home for quite some time.
Shakhtar passed the ball as well as any visiting side has done all season, and at times their movement would not have been out of place in a Champions League final. But Fulham – as they have showed signs of being recently – were at their resilient best, and Zamora punished the pretty yet non-clinical Ukrainians in the best imaginable fashion. Indeed throughout the game, when the Whites weren’t chasing shadows, the rekindled partnership of Zamora and Zoltan Gera was a thorn in Shakhtar’s side. The two players made the most of somewhat limited chances, combining for both goals – the first Gera finished after being slipped through by Zamora, and then the Hungarian himself neatly flicked the ball for Zamora’s stunner. The goals were the most telling examples of their shrewd link-up play, but were by no means isolated examples. On many occasions Gera dropped off for a Zamora knockdown or pushed up for a flick-on, and several other times the Hungarian fell into the midfield to try and play his partner through, and indeed help win the ball back from the crisp-passing visitors. Gera has impressed almost every time he has played in his preferred position just off the striker, especially in Europe, and with Roy Hodgson’s striking options limited – Diomansy Kamara on loan at Celtic, Stefano Okaka still learning the ropes, Andy Johnson out for the season and Erik Nevland more effective as a substitute – the former West Brom man looks the best bet to partner Zamora.
The England hopeful’s name is carved into the teamsheet whenever he is fit, such has been his turnaround in club form this season. His strike against Shakhtar was his 14th in 31 appearances in all competitions this season – a ratio of almost one goal in every two games, which has been a completely unheard of statistic at Fulham since Louis Saha was scoring for fun at the Cottage, 15 in 22 before his move to Manchester United. And such a return from a striker makes a welcome change for fans who have barely seen their forwards reach double figures since that remarkable Saha campaign. In fact, Zamora’s strike last night makes him the most prolific forward since then, with Andy Cole next on the list with his 13 scored in the 2005/06 season – from 40 appearances. When he plays as he did against the Ukrainian side the tag of being the most prolific Fulham player in six years is fully justified. He can battle with even the toughest of Eastern European centre-backs and has a touch that belies his physical stature. In short, he is a real handful at any given time, but when his confidence grows as it has done this season he is close to unplayable – words that have rarely been used to describe a Fulham player since the aforementioned Saha was strutting his stuff. The goal was no more than he deserved on the night, and the win was earned by the whole team, despite them for long periods having to watch what resembled a game of Total Action Football.
It was hard-fought, but now there are only a few days for the players to recover before the Premier League comes to the fore once again. A different challenge entirely awaits Hodgson’s troops this weekend, as instead of being on the receiving end of a dazzling passing display they will be expected to be the football-playing team. The fixture gives the Whites a chance to breath down their weekend opponents’ necks in the league table as the momentum continues to gather following last night’s confidence-heightening victory. Of course, Alex McLeish’s charges did not have the energy-sapping tie that Hodgson’s did, so they will likely come out lively for the result. The result will largely be decided on which aspect in football is more important, freshness or momentum.
If Fulham can keep tight at the back and prolific going forward, then the run of wins could easily continue, but if weariness starts to set in then the tie could go either way.
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