Gera gets the nod to grab Europa lifeline for Fulham

Fulham 1 CSKA Sofia 0
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The Independent Football

Fulham's hopes of reaching the Europa League knockout stages will go down to the wire after Zoltan Gera earned them victory against CSKA Sofia at Craven Cottage last night.

Needing to match Group E rivals Roma on the night, Roy Hodgson's men did their part with maximum points against their Bulgarian opponents.

Danny Murphy, making his first appearance in six weeks after a knee injury, missed a penalty but Gera headed home to spare his captain's blushes. They travel to Basle on Wednesday, 16 December still with a slim hope of reaching the last 32.

"The Premier League is the major concern and the Europa League comes second to that," Hodgson said. "I don't think the fans will hold anything against us for our performances in this competition. They know when we go to Basle we will be doing our very best.

"We are still trying to do the best we can, the players will be trying hard to get us through and that was evident against CSKA, personified by people like Simon Davies, Gera and Bobby Zamora.

"We knew it would be tough for Basle to get anything at Roma so with the four points dropped against Roma we always thought we would have had to win the last two games."

Apart from Murphy's return, striker Zamora was included after missing the draw against Bolton on Saturday with a slight knock, easing the selection issues for Hodgson as Erik Nevland, Paul Konchesky and Jonathan Greening were suspended.

Stephen Kelly was drafted in at full-back, while Bjorn Helge Riise, Christopher Smalling and Davies came in for Clint Dempsey, Damien Duff and Aaron Hughes.

Needing victory to have any chance of qualifying from Group E, the visitors almost took a shock early lead.

Todor Timonov latched onto a loose clearance and got his shot away before John Pantsil arrived with the challenge, with the ball rebounding to safety after smacking the crossbar.

Then came Murphy's ninth-minute penalty when Gera was fouled by Ivan Ivanov, an offence so blatant there was no need for the extra official behind the goal, a trial for this game. After his time on the sidelines, Murphy's ring-rusty spot-kick was sidefooted over the crossbar.

The hosts, however, were ahead in the 15th minute when Riise won a 50-50 ball after a corner was cleared, dashed down the right flank and crossed for Gera to nod home from close range. Zamora could then have doubled the lead but volleyed over after Gera nodded in his direction on the edge of the area.

The only thing that knocked the hosts off their stride was the elbow of Viktors Morozs, which connected with Gera's face and earned the midfielder a yellow card.

Hodgson took off Brede Hangeland at the break and replaced him with Hughes, giving his two first-choice centre-backs a half each ahead of Sunday's clash against Sunderland.

Spas Delev then missed an opportunity to make Fulham pay for their first-half wastefulness – but he went just wide with a volley, before Riise went over in the penalty area before the end but it was right in front of the extra official – and he rejected the appeal.

Duff came on and was needed to clear off the line when Kosta Yanev got his shot through a ruck of players. CSKA felt they should have had a penalty for a Kelly handball just before that effort, but Fulham survived.

Fulham Schwarzer, Pantsil, Smalling, Hangeland (Hughes, 46), Kelly, Riise, Baird, Murphy (Duff, 78), Gera, Davies (Dempsey, 70), Zamora. Substitutes not used: Stockdale, Saunders, Briggs, Uwezu.

CSKA Sofia Chavdarov, Minev, Vidanov, Ivanov (Yanev, 63), Kostadin Stoyanov, Todorov (Rui Miguel, 70), Yanchev, Popov, Morozs, Timonov (Michel, 54), Delev. Substitutes not used: Ivaylo Petrov, Branekov, Nikolay Manchev, Michel, Baez.

Referee: P Balaj (Romania).

Group E

Remaining fixtures: Wednesday 16 December: CSKA Sofia v Roma, Basle v Fulham.