It was around 11.05pm in Hamburg and 116 minutes into the 63rd game of Fulham's remarkable season when at last their great improbable European odyssey was brought to an end by a familiar Uruguayan goalscoring assassin.
At the final whistle, as Fulham shoulders slumped and the red-and-white shirts of Atletico Madrid converged in celebration, Diego Forlan stayed apart to patiently shake hands with the defenders around him and then sought out Mark Schwarzer to do the same. It was a nice touch from the matchwinner – a player who knows English football well and understands just how far the opposition had come.
Plucky little Fulham have impressed everyone, even the man who finally ended their dream. But the approval of the neutrals will have counted for very little as they watched Atletico's players hoist that familiar burnished silver Uefa flower vase into the cold German air last night.
That small window to make history for Fulham, an opportunity to change the course of 131 years without a single major trophy closed abruptly last night and who knows if the chance will ever come again? They were so close but their remarkable 18-match run to the Europa League final ended four minutes before they stepped into the casino of the penalty shoot-out.
It was a bitter blow to take for Roy Hodgson and his brave team of journeymen, rejects and players with a point to prove, but Atletico were the better team on the night. In Sergio Aguero they had the game's most eye-catching player and in Forlan they had the kind of top quality goalscorer capable of deciding big games. Fulham had blood, sweat and tears which was not quite enough.
It is the second time that Hodgson has lost in the final of this competition and on this occasion he was very unfortunate not to have his two best players fully fit. Bobby Zamora was virtually on one leg but still managed to play a key role in the goal that Simon Davies scored in the first half. Damien Duff lasted almost the whole 90 minutes. Neither was playing at full capacity.
Where Fulham go from here will be largely dependent on whether Hodgson is still at the club when they reconvene for pre-season. As for his team, largely made up of players at the end of their careers, this really was the best of times and it is hard to imagine them repeating the feats of this vintage season next time around.
But those are concerns for another day, last night in Hamburg was an occasion on which they battled against a better team to take the game into extra-time when lesser sides would have crumbled. Right to the last they stuck to Hodgson's principles of every player knowing his job and sticking to it and if Brede Hangeland had just reacted quicker to Forlan's near-post run near the end then who knows what might have been?
Upon such details great campaigns fall although they will never be able to take from Fulham those nights upon which they humbled some of the big names in European football. To his credit, Hodgson accepted this defeat with grace and generosity and at 62 without a big trophy to his name that cannot have been very easy to do.
The television cameras picked out a sobbing Lily Allen in the crowd and no doubt David "Diddy" Hamilton, Craven Cottage's stadium announcer who was brought along to whip up the fans, also had to stifle a sniffle at the final whistle. This is English football's most inoffensive of clubs but they would have swapped the friendly reputation for winners' medals last night.
Fulham started anxiously but came into the game more in the second half. Aguero mesmerised Chris Baird a couple of times in the first half and Fulham were fortunate to get away with it. Forlan hit the post after 12 minutes when Danny Murphy presented possession to Aguero and he played in his strike partner with a lovely ball inside.
Fulham fell behind on 32 minutes when an attack broke down and Atletico moved forward swiftly, the Portugal international Simao Sabrosa playing a first-time ball into Aguero just inside the box. Aguero took the pace off the ball with his head but scuffed his shot. It fell nicely for Forlan who put it away amid suspicions of offside.
Up until then only Davies had managed a decent shot on goal and it would have been easy for Fulham to go quietly into the night. You felt they might just have hit the end of the road. But they dragged themselves back into it.
The equaliser, five minutes after Forlan's goal, came from Zamora's only real authoritative bit of play. On the left he muscled the midfielder Paulo Assuncao out the way and bore down on goal down the left, losing his nerve and then the ball in the box. He tried to square it and Duff managed to help it on to Zoltan Gera whose neat cross was swept in by Davies.
Zamora lasted until the 55th minute and then hobbled off to be replaced by Clint Dempsey. Fulham struggled to attack with any pace on the occasions when they got free on the break. It was the strength of their defence that rescued them and the sense that it would take a really good effort to beat Schwarzer.
Forlan finally found the mark with his second goal with four minutes of the game remaining. He sprinted away from Hangeland to get to the cross first and his flick brushed off the Norwegian on its way into the goal. The end of a long road for Fulham had finally arrived.
Atletico Madrid (4-4-2): De Gea; Ujfalusi, Perea, Dominguez, Lopez; Reyes (Salvio, 78, Assuncao, Garcia, Simao (Jurado, 68); Forlan, Aguero (Valera, 119). Substitutes not used Robles (gk), Camacho, Juanito, Cabrera.
Fulham (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Baird, Hughes, Hangeland, Konchesky; Duff (Nevland, 84), Etuhu, Murphy (Greening, 118), Davies; Gera; Zamora (Dempsey, 55). Substitutes not used Zuberbuhler (gk), Pantsil, Riise, Dikgacoi.
Referee N Rizzoli (Italy).Reuse content