After a 17-hour coach trip to Germany – with a monstrous traffic jam to boot – it would have been easy for Fulham to lose their discipline and concentration for last night’s match against Hamburg. However, as it happens, they produced the most impressive team performance since, well, the last round against Wolfsburg.
The organisation of this Roy Hodgson outfit is something all European opposition have come to expect, yet there still appears to be very little any of them can do about it. It was the second successive shutout of a solid attacking German unit in their own back yard, and it was achieved with the exact same commitment from every player who took part. Despite a justifiably shaky first half – which still did not gift many excellent chances to Hamburg – the team came out in the final 45 to defend from the front, to double-up on the home side’s wingers, and to harass in midfield. Everything that Hodgson requires from his ‘play for the draw’ away tactic was evident, and the initial aim of not conceding was completed. Of course at this stage of any competition, even when the tactical battle is being won, the 10-man unit can be breached. Then, it is up to the last line of defence to not wake the scorers.
Instead of being tired and irritable in the pre-match press conference, which would have been understandable, Mark Schwarzer was jovial and focused, and his performance on the pitch lived up to his words prior to the game. Away European games so often end in a home win due to the distances needed to travel, and few, when considering that travelling distance had to be covered by road, would have predicted anything other than a home win last night. Indeed, at times, the breaking of the deadlock looked inevitable, but the Australian between the Fulham posts was commanding, and dealt with everything that was thrown at him. However solidly the defence played, the Germans still had chances to score, and it was Schwarzer’s job to do anything in his power to stop them. It was a textbook goalkeeping display. Last season’s Player of the Year, Schwarzer at different stages of the match both showed his years – with the experience required to claim corners and command his defence – and defied them, displaying the agility of a man half his age from one particular second-half dipping effort. Before the game, he claimed the coach trip had brought the players together. On the pitch it was hard to tell whether or not that was indeed the case – all 11 (plus subs) men showed the same commitment for one another as they have throughout the entire knockout stage of this tournament. Commitment that, if it continues, could well see them into a deserved cup final.
The excellent team effort last night marked the club’s third successive clean sheet in all competitions. It was also the third successive clean sheet for the opposing team, with the Whites having failed to score in the two previous fixtures, away to Liverpool before the weekend’s home stalemate with Wolves. Of course, with the league taking a back seat, and Fulham’s record at Goodison Park – home of the next opponents this weekend, Everton – where they have yet to take a point, it matters little if that game makes it four in a row without troubling the scorers. However, in Europe, or all the hard work the defence does, a goal, or preferably two, are needed at Craven Cottage next Thursday if anyone inside the packed Craven Cottage is to have any fingernails left. What if it is another blank for the Londoners? That would be far from ideal, we all know how English sides fare against Germans in penalty shoot-outs.
Surprisingly against Wolves, Hodgson did not rest too many players, but the story will surely be different this Sunday. With the players returning from the longest trip to Germany there has possibly ever been, it would be wise for several not to travel. Top-scorer Bobby Zamora – the likeliest threat to score next Thursday – limped off so will likely stay home in preparation for the second leg. Other players worked their socks off for the draw and, in this writer’s opinion, deserve a proper (rested) crack when the tables are turned next week. Zoltan Gera, who is fast becoming Fulham’s European Player of the Year, in particular deserves time to recover.
It is funny how last summer’s priority for Hodgson – the Premier League – and last summer’s distraction – the Europa League – have switched places. Everyone, including the manager, would accept a hammering at Goodison Park for a narrow 1-0 victory over Hamburg. Whatever happens, Thursday cannot come quickly enough.