When things click just right for Fulham, even a so often free-scoring Wolfsburg, with Edin Dzeko and friends, are not a match. And the reward for a text-book away European display? A Europa League semi-final.
At Easter just two years ago, when the Whites were busy fighting a seemingly impossible fight to stay in the Premier League, you would have been locked up for suggesting many of the same players would be within touching distance of a European final. Had anyone been crazy enough to make such a prediction, they can now be released with a full pardon, for Roy Hodgson has his side just two matches away from a shot at the Europa League. That all four of his defenders from last night were ever-present in that near-disastrous 2007/08 season (Brede Hangeland arriving in January to shore up the back line) makes the turnaround all the more impressive, and the manager must take most of the plaudits. Chris Baird, Aaron Hughes and Paul Konchesky – under Lawrie Sanchez – were turned inside out by even the hapless sides that year yet, last night, they limited Dzeko, Grafite and Zvjezdan Misimovic and the like to mere half-chances – the entire defence deserves an awful lot of credit for that.
All that Fulham did well – which, to be fair, was everything – started from the back. Hangeland lead by example by winning vital headers throughout – just as this writer noted he would have to – and what little he did miss Hughes was there to telepathically mop up. The full-backs, Baird and Konchesky, were always an outlet for their central teammates, and both were used to build attacks in the possession game which was utilised. The Whites had the ball under control for long periods of the match, with patient, intricate passing that would perhaps be more fitting of the side that has scored more than two goals a game at home in the league. But this is how Fulham play. Hodgson has instilled his philosophy on the players and they have responded with a full understanding to create a brand of football that, when all the links combine properly, is almost unplayable – a key link being when the back four are as composed on the ball as the rest of the team.
Just as Hangeland and Hughes appeared clairvoyant, Danny Murphy and Dickson Etuhu – and indeed the rest of the midfield – knew where each other where at every step. There was enough support for the front men and enough cover for the defence and they all ran and pressed from the first minute to the last. In some areas, Wolfsburg towered above their counterparts in red, but Etuhu made himself known to counter that somewhat. He was asked to be the enforcer, and enforce he did. That individual understanding of what role each player has is where the tie was won. Hodgson could be forgiven if he was surprised by just how effectively his orders were carried out but, of course, he was not – after all, he wrote the text book on defending a slender lead. Having said that, the (very) early goal would have calmed a lot of nerves, with a two-goal cushion a real advantage to hang on to. In truth, however, they did no such thing as hang on, as Murphy made clear in his post-match interview. Had either Simon Davies’ low effort that was brilliantly saved or Murphy’s effort that was blocked off the line gone in then the Whites would have had a more deserved 2-0 victory. Against such a calibre of opposition, that is a compliment indeed.
This remarkable European tour began many months ago in July many miles away in Lithuania. Since then the travelling Whites army has, amongst others, taken in Italy, Switzerland, the Ukraine and now Germany. The latter is the last country on the long list, for even if Fulham make it all the way, Hamburg is the final destination. Could next fortnight’s first leg be a dress rehearsal of the final to be played in the same stadium just a few weeks after that? On last night’s showing, there is no reason why not.