Fulham’s journey to the Europa League final

While many fans and players were sunning themselves in late July before the start of another tough league season, Fulham, a team not known for their laid back attitude, began their assault on the Europa League at the Third qualifying round stage of the tournament in Lithuania against VK Vetra. Bobby Zamora opened his account for the season just before half-time in the first leg, before winning a penalty in the second half for Danny Murphy to convert. Substitute Seol Ki-Hyeon then put the gloss on a solid performance, firing home from the edge of the box. The return leg at Craven Cottage was just as conclusive, with Dickson Etuhu getting the ball rolling just before the hour mark, before a brace from Andrew Johnson capped off a fine display and a 6-0 aggregate win.

Fulham needed a second two-legged affair to secure their place in the group stage, this time taking on Russia’s Amkar Perm. Fulham made the perfect start at the Cottage with Johnson scoring after just four minutes and goals from Clint Dempsey, a 30 yard effort, and then Zamora making it 3-0. Vitaliy Grishin did get one back for the Russians with a goal 13 minutes from time. The away leg in Russia was a fairly tame affair until the closing minutes, with Kushev’s header bringing Amkar to with one goal of victory, but a resolute Fulham defence held out to secure their place in the group stage.

That group stage saw Fulham drawn with CSKA Sofia, FC Basel and Italian giants Roma. A trip to Sofia was Fulham’s first task, with Diomansy Kamara’s neat finish on 65 minutes stealing a point after Michel had earlier given the home side the lead. Murphy gave Fulham a 1-0 win against Basel in their second group game, putting Fulham in a great position heading into the double header against Roma, games that proved to be thrilling from start to finish. The first match was a tale of two corners, the first scored by Brede Hangeland for Fulham, and second volleyed in by Marco Andreolli for Roma in the final minute of stoppage time. Mirko Vucinic did miss a penalty in between the set-piece goals as Stephen Kelly was sent off. The return game was just as eventful with Kamara giving Fulham the lead from the spot in the first-half. The second period saw John Arne Riise’s deflected shot, and then Stefano Okaka’s header deceive goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer. To compound a luckless evening Paul Konchesky was sent off in stoppage time at the Olympic Stadium.

Defeat meant Fulham now had to win both of their remaining games to stand any chance of qualifying for the knock-phase of the competition and Zoltan Gera’s 15th minute goal dispatched Sofia out of the tournament to complete the first half of the job. That set up a winner-take-all encounter between Basel and Fulham in Switzerland. Two Zamora goals in as many minutes gave the Londoners the advantage but Basel hit back in the second-half through Alexander Frei’s penalty. Gera was then on hand to slide the ball in to re-establish Fulham’s two goal advantage which was eventually enough for them to reach the knockout phase, despite Marco Streller’s late header.

They were drawn in their last-32 against reigning champions Shakhtar Donetsk, another tough ask for the Cottagers. Gera gave the home side the lead inside four minutes, before Luiz Adriano rounded goalkeeper Schwarzer and levelled the scores. In a tight second-half it took a moment of brilliance from Zamora, a thunderous strike, to separate the sides and give Fulham a 2-1 win. In the second leg Fulham were in debt to both Schwarzer, who pulled off some stunning early saves, and then to Hangeland who opening the scoring in Ukraine with a glancing header. Shakhter equalized on the night through Jadson, but despite throwing everything at the away side, the last UEFA Cup champions could find no-way through.

Juventus were the next team charged with trying to topple Fulham, who at this stage were attracting some attention from the rest of Europe, and their performance against the Old Lady was to swell the interest surrounding them even further. Three first-half goals from Nicola Legrottaglie, Jonathan Zebina and David Trezeguet in Italy gave Juve a two goal advantage to take to London, with Dickson Etuhu’s deflected effort all the away side could muster. The second leg however did not go the way of the two-time European Cup winners and will be fondly remembered by every Fulham supporter in attendance. Trezeguet gave the away side a 4-1 aggregate lead, one that seemed unassailable. Zamora began the fight back with a close range finish, but the decisive moment came when Fabio Cannavaro was sent off minutes later. Gera then tapped home from close range before rifling home a second-half penalty. It was then left to Clint Dempsey to finish off the evening in style as his dinked chip from all of 25-yards sailed over Antonio Chimenti to cap the most unlikely of wins.

Fulham were sailing on the crest of a wave, next facing German champions Wolfsburg in the last eight and they struck the first blow in front of a bumper Craven Cottage crowd. Zamora hit the first from outside the area, and Damien Duff doubled their lead minutes later. A stoppage time header from Alexander Madlung, however, meant Wolfsburg would go into the second leg as slight favourites. But with the odds stacked against them, Fulham overcame their German counterparts. It took just 25 seconds for Zamora to find the net in the Wolfsburg Arena, a goal that secured Fulham’s progress to their first European semi-final.

Their opponents were Hamburg, the hosts of the final in May and after a goalless draw in Germany, the first of Fulham’s run to the final, Mladen Petric’s stunning free-kick looked to have decided the tie. But after Simon Davis’ equalizer from close range, Gera tapped home the winner after a Fulham corner was only half cleared. Fulham had done it. Jubilation was unconfined around Craven Cottage as fans realized a first European final was on the horizon and after all they have been through this season, even with Spanish side Atletico Madrid in the way, the showpiece final should hold no fear for Fulham.

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