It was a goal worthy of winning any game of football. It was a goal that was – just about – equal to the occasion. Clint Dempsey’s outstanding chip saw Fulham knock out Juventus in the biggest game of football Craven Cottage has ever seen.
And no-one inside the historic ground last night could say that the home side were not deserved victors. Despite the first leg ending 3-1 to the Old Lady, they were given a big helping hand by a below-par Whites side that night. In the second leg there were no gifts on offer and the home side, armed with a vociferous Cottage to unsettle Juve, won the battle in every area of the pitch, and if the first leg was reasonably close in every aspect except the scoreline, the return fixture was a different matter entirely. Aside from some questionable clearances immediately before David Trezeguet put Juventus ahead, the Whites’ defence stood up to everything that was thrown at them. Brede Hangeland did not miss a header all night, Paul Konchesky and Stephen Kelly used their licence to roam to perfection, the left-back was especially good, setting up the equaliser and playing a big part in the second. It was an unrecognisable back-four from the one that gave away petty free-kicks and forgot to mark at set-pieces last week, and it was those players who allowed the attacking contingent to do whatever was needed to win the colossal European tie.
It did look early on as if the magnitude of the occasion – which many players mentioned in various newspapers before the game – was simply going to be too much. But Fulham showed the same spirit that they did on many occasions during the Great Escape season to turn around what was a 4-1 deficit. That spirit was personified by Bobby Zamora’s performance. In Turin the big man was – fairly or not – pushed out of the game by Fabio Cannavaro, but in London he got his revenge and more. Zamora’s equalising goal gave the 36-year-old World Cup winner a taste of his own medicine, as the Fulham striker brushed his marker aside before firing past Antonio Chimenti. Had the centre-back not received his marching orders in the first half, Zamora would probably have continued making him look like an amateur, however, as it was, he had to settle for bullying the rest of the men in gold. Once again under the watchful eye of Fabio Capello, there is little more Zamora can do in order to get a call up to the national team – unless, of course, the Head Coach was watching Dempsey, in which case he has reason to be worried about June 12.
Of course, this was a team performance. Zamora should not, and nor will he, take all the plaudits. He performed his role as well as could have been asked, but so did every player in white and that was the only way the 4-1 mountain was ever going to be climbed. With no Danny Murphy or his usual replacement Jonathan Greening, it was difficult to see where even the two initially required goals were going to come from, let alone the four after Juve’s rapid opener. The central-midfield pairing of Dickson Etuhu and Chris Baird were a presence, but their lack of creativity meant Zoltan Gera needed to be the creative force in the middle, as well as feed off Zamora’s flicks. He took the challenge with relish. It was he who got on the end of the brilliantly worked second goal, it was he who superbly buried the penalty for the aggregate-equaliser, and it was his run that Cannavaro illegally stopped to reduce the visitors to ten men. It was a masterclass display from playing in the hole, and the front two once more showed how effective their combination can be.
With Dempsey back in full swing and Murphy to return for the quarter-final, Fulham need not fear anyone. It will remain a monumental task to win the Europa League, but having already knocked out two of the strongest teams in the entire tournament, there will certainly be more European giants hoping to avoid drawing that modest club along the banks of the Thames from the quarter-final hat. Valencia, Atletico Madrid and Liverpool are just three of the teams which the Whites deserve to be named alongside, and there will be another two legs which may have the potential to eclipse even March 18, 2010.