"Diego Forlorn" they used to call him. But it was the Fulham players who were left forlorn last night as Diego Forlan finally blew away his comedic reputation in England. The Uruguayan took eight months and 27 games to score his first goal for Manchester United after signing for them, for £6.9m, in 2002. Although the United fans never forsook him, appreciating his limitless enthusiasm and work-rate, he was a figure of fun to supporters elsewhere and he was sold on after two years and 10 goals in 67 matches.
He has subsequently scored more than 140 goals in Spain, picking up two European Golden Boots along the way. He also scored in both legs of Atletico Madrid's semi-final defeat of Liverpool, so no one at Fulham under-estimated him last night.
Knowing a danger is one thing, dealing with it is another. Brede Hangeland never quite came to grips with Forlan's subtle movement. The Norwegian is nine inches taller, but with Atletico keeping the ball on the ground that was no advantage. For the first goal he was not close enough to Forlan when Sergio Aguero's mishit shot fell at the Uruguayan's feet. For the second he was outsmarted as Forlan burst across him to reach Aguero's cross. Cruelly, the ball was then deflected past Mark Schwarzer in the Fulham goal off Hangeland's thigh.
In some respects the error was forgivable. Hangeland must have been desperately tired, mentally and physically, after nearly two hours trying to contain Forlan and his equally quick-footed Argentine strike-partner. Fulham's defence has been laboriously well-drilled but they are rigid and that can be exposed by clever forward play. The Atletico coach, Quique Sanchez Flores, is not the first to spot this. The visit of Juventus to Craven Cottage is remembered as an epic night for Fulham as the Old Lady was mugged and an aggregate advantage which at one stage stood at 4-1, was overturned. Less often recalled is the problems Juventus caused before Fabio Cannavaro was dismissed. Alberto Zaccheroni, their caretaker manager, fielded a 4-1-2-2-1 formation with Diego and Antonio Candreva playing between midfield and attack. Zaccheroni later pointed out he wanted to play "between Fulham's lines". Cannavaro's dismissal meant the ploy was not fully tested.
Forlan and Aguero looked to find that same space behind the shielding midfielders, Danny Murphy and Dickson Etuhu, and in front of Fulham's centre-backs. They took turns to drop off, pick up possession and, especially the jinking Aguero, turn and run at Hangeland and Aaron Hughes.
Zoltan Gera is the man deputed to find the same space for Fulham. A lack of service caused by uncharacteristically poor passing in midfield, and the injury-hampered Bobby Zamora's inability to provide his usual space-creating movement, meant the Hungarian's impact was restricted by comparison. Nevertheless, he never shirked the responsibility and was involved in Simon Davies' goal.
At the other end Forlan had struck the post as early as the 11th-minute, Aguero seizing on Murphy's misdirected pass to break forward and release Forlan. Aguero might also have won the tie in injury-time when he went over Hangeland's leg after a poorly-judged tackle from the Norwegian but the penalty appeals were turned down.
Aguero and Forlan now go their separate ways, to the World Cup training camps of Argentina and Uruguay respectively. If they can find suitable partners – and in Aguero's case there is the complication that his father-in-law, Diego Maradona, is Argentina's coach – they will be a threat.