Fulham fighting on all fronts

By Jerome Butcher

Fulham FC

As the new football season explodes into action, with the eagerly anticipated Premier League doing so in just a few days, some British teams have already been playing competitive matches instead of just pre-season friendlies taking place the other side of the world.

Of course there was the traditional Premier League curtain-raiser last Sunday, when Manchester United clashed with Chelsea at Wembley. The Blues eventually won 4-1 on penalties to claim the first piece of silverware: the Community Shield.

There have also been the UEFA Champions League and Europa League qualifying rounds, often given minimal media coverage, which started as early as 2nd July and will have a huge impact on some clubs’ fixture lists.

Both Scottish teams were dumped out of the Europa League; Motherwell losing 6-1 on aggregate to Steaua Bucuresti and Mark McGhee’s Aberdeen suffering an even heavier, more embarrassing defeat to SK Sigma Olomouc 8-1 on aggregate.

Only Celtic managed to salvage some pride as they overcame a 1-0 home deficit against Dinamo Moscow. They won 2-0 in the Russian capital to progress from the third qualifying round and into the play-offs.

Ex-Man City striker Georgios Samaras scored in the dying minutes to set up an interesting tie between the SPL runners-up and Arsenal next Tuesday in their first leg to earn a place in the group stages proper.

The Sport Review’s Jerome Butcher was at Craven Cottage to see Fulham host their third ever European fixture at their historic home ground in SW6.

European football returned six years after they first competed in a European competition, back in 2002 when Fulham reached the UEFA Cup by beating Bologna in the final of the Intertoto Cup. That season they moved temporarily to QPR’s Loftus Road while the last remaining Premier League stadium to have terraces was redeveloped.

Tonight Fulham were playing host to Lithuanian club FK Vetra. With a comfortable 3-0 cushion from the first leg, Roy Hodgson still fielded a strong side capable of seeing off the tie captained by Arsenal target Brede Hangeland.

The first half was a fairly dogged display not helped by the fact that the skies above London opened up and the floodgates released. We had front row tickets and despite the empty seats further back in the Johnny Haynes stand my ‘die-hard’ Fulham fan friend and I decided to stick it out.

The Lithuanians with their 200 strong faithful making a commendable amount of noise throughout seemed determined to get something out of the game. Tomas Razanauskas had a good early effort from long range, which tested the goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer.

Andy Johnson, partnering the increasingly-ineffective Bobby Zamora upfront, saw his header denied by the post followed by Zoltan Gera’s shot saved off the line. Both Paul Konchesky and Clint Dempsey had efforts saved. It looked more and more likely that the 15,016 fans would not be rewarded with any goals.

It took 57 minutes for Fulham to finally find a way through when the very physically strong former Sunderland player, Dickson Etuhu headed top corner from Konchesky’s in-swinging corner. He played very well and bullied the midfield. Both opposite central midfielders had a torrid time trying to win possession from the Nigerian.

Zamora continued to prove the critics right as he wasted chances. One in particular when he found himself one-on-one with the keeper, and clearly lacking in confidence squared it poorly to Andy Johnson instead of shooting. Johnson did eventually add a second when he got on the end of Dempsey’s cross.

Late on Hodgson awarded Bjorn Helge Riise his home debut and the promising young American Eddie Johnson came on for Zamora with ten minutes to go. The latter was able to pick out his namesake as the former Evertonian got his second goal and wrapped up the game.

After the game Hodgson said, “I think we will be seeded. That makes life a little bit easier.” But he recognised there was a long way to go yet and that the Whites would have to continue playing as best they could to do well.

“When you get this far you get teams dropping in from the Champions League like Dinamo Moscow. We have got a big hurdle to jump before we get to the group stages.”

Fulham’s European adventure continues next week when they host unknown FC Amkar Perm from Russia on Thursday.

Meanwhile Hearts have a tough trip to Croatia’s Dinamo Zagreb and Aston Villa travel to Austria to play Rapid Vienna. Everton fans will hope their defence not only includes the want-away Joleon Lescott, but can also do a better than the eight goals Aberdeen conceded against the Czech side.

Full Champions League play-off draw:
FC Sheriff v Olympiakos
SV Red Bull Salzburg v Maccabi Haifa
FK Ventspils v FC Zurich
FC Copenhagen v Apoel Nicosia
Levski Sofia v Debrecen
Lyon v Anderlecht
CELTIC v ARSENAL
FC Timisoara v VfB Stuttgart
Sporting v Fiorentina
Panathinaikos v Atletico Madrid

(The first legs are to played 18/19 August while the second legs will take place on 25/26 August)

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