Duff grabs narrow advantage for Fulham

Fulham 2 Wolfsburg 1
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Another night of heart-thumping emotion here, and again it was defibrillators to the ready. One thing is certain about Fulham. If they succeed in progressing to the Europa League final, they will have tantalised their followers no end.

In the last round they were all but eliminated by Juventus, but conjured the seemingly impossible. Last night against Wolfsburg they looked certain to travel to the return leg next week with a solid foundation for triumph until, frustratingly, they allowed a last-minute response from the visiting team which nudged the balance in the German club's favour.

Yet that should not detract from their achievement against the reigning Bundesliga champions. "I'm not going to allow my enthusiasm, my belief in the players and my desire to give them credit, to be dampened by a late goal after such a good performance against the German champions," manager Roy Hodgson declared, before proceeding to enthuse over Bobby Zamora. The club's leading goalscorer increased his tally to 18 with a splendidly-executed drive, and fashioned Damien Duff's second within four exhilarating second-half minutes, that had seemingly placed Fulham in command. "He's doing it against class opponents in Europe," said Hodgson after the chorus had yet again gone up from the stands: Zamora for England. "It's unfair to say he can only do it in the Premier League."

Zamora, suffering from a cold earlier in the week, was one of five regulars omitted for Saturday's league match at Hull, which ended in defeat – although in doing so Hodgson had incurred the wrath of the Tigers' relegation rivals, West Ham, who indicate they intend to complain to the Premier League. That quintet – Danny Murphy, Duff, Aaron Hughes, Dickson Etuhu and Zamora – all returned in an attacking line-up, which included Simon Davies deployed at right back. When asked about the Hammers' irritation, Hodgson maintained: "I don't think West Ham should be picking our team. My conscience is clear."

A sense of daring to believe is rarely absent among the faithful here, and last night they readily overlooked the fact that the Juventus demolition job in the previous round had been but one spectacular shooting star in an otherwise featureless March sky. It was a month, save that exhilarating Europa League home leg, which had contained five defeats in all competitions.

However, anticipation at the prospect of a final now so tantalisingly close after 15 European games on a relentless march which began eight months ago, soon turned to apprehension as the hosts began tentatively. Towards the break, though, Hodgson's men began to stretch the visitors, with Zoltan Gera, Clint Dempsey and Zamora all testing goalkeeper Diego Benaglio. Etuhu headed wide while Dempsey was awry with another effort.

At the start of the second period Wolfsburg's leading scorer Edin Dzeko spurned a clear headed chance, and with Zvjezdan Misimovic threatening to prise open the home rearguard, Fulham looked vulnerable to the counter-attack. But then, with that extraordinary ability Fulham have of turning a game, when on home territory, they scored twice in four minutes around the hour.

First, Dempsey found Zamora, who stroked a splendid left-footed drive across Benaglio. That was followed by an exquisite move with Paul Konchesky seeking out Zamora in the area. He played the ball into the path of Duff for the Irishman to fire home. A last-minute header from Alexander Madlung took the edge off things, but with Fulham in the kind of mood they have discovered in Europe, their remarkable adventure could yet continue.

Fulham (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Davies, Hughes, Hangeland, Konchesky; Duff, Murphy (Baird, 87), Etuhu, Dempsey; Gera; Zamora. Substitutes not used: Zuberbühler (gk), Nevland, Riise, Smalling, Greening, Elm.

Wolfsburg (4-1-3-2): Benaglio; Pekarik (Martins, 74), Madlung, Barzagli, Schafer; Josue; Riether, Misimovic, Gentner (Dejagah, 84); Dzeko, Grafite. Substitutes not used: Lenz (gk), Simunek, Hasebe, Johnson, Rever.

Referee: D Skomina (Slovenia).