Top Gera drives superb Fulham fightback to delight the Cottage

Fulham 2 Hamburg 1 (Fulham win 2-1 on aggregate)

You could say that the road for Fulham to the Europa League final has been 18 games and nine months but to be at Craven Cottage last night was to know that it has been longer than that – in fact it felt more like 131 years of largely mediocre history had culminated in spectacular fashion

It was quite simply the greatest moment in the life of this football club. Never mind the 1975 FA Cup final, this was the moment that this august little club on the banks of the Thames announced itself to the world with a two-goal comeback and a place among the big guns of Europe. Fulham are going to Hamburg again for the final on 12 May and this time they will travel there in style.

The coach journey that took Fulham to Germany for the first leg of this tie stands as a testament to the appealing ordinariness of this club. As is his manner, Roy Hodgson took this victory in his stride but you could hardly say the same for the rest. John Pantsil ran laps of the pitch. Mohamed al-Fayed was down on the turf as quick as he could get there. Suddenly life has changed for Fulham.

Even by the time the players came out the dressing rooms and through a late downpour in west London, extra-time was yet to be completed at Anfield. That they will play Atletico Madrid rather than Liverpool means that Fulham will be the focus of this match in England rather than their customary position of being overshadowed by bigger clubs with bigger issues.

This was Hodgson's masterpiece. He played Zamora although the striker was far from completely fit and only when he took the striker off just before the hour did Fulham, one goal down, at last come alive. Simon Davies scored a beautifully taken equaliser and as Hamburg lost their nerve and fell back even more, Zoltan Gera hit what turned out to be the winner.

It is the sheer scale of the achievement that will send Hodgson's reputation skyward. Basle, Juventus, Wolfsburg and now Hamburg have all been beaten at Craven Cottage on this marathon run to the final by a club that has never won a trophy from the first rank in their entire history. Hodgson is now the pre-eminent English manager in the game and he richly deserves that status.

He has certainly picked his moment. In the season when the Premier League's biggest beasts did not make it past the quarter-finals of the Champions League, Fulham have a clear run at glory in Europe in the final furlong of the season. They carry the flag for English football and in their attitude and style of play they are worthy standard-bearers.

For all the joy at the end, this was the kind of first half for Fulham that made you wonder whether they had finally run out of steam. Hamburg, a tidy if rather functional team, had the best of it early on. Ruud van Nistelrooy was quiet all night but the veteran Ze Roberto was excellent in central midfield.

The goal from Hamburg was an exceptional hit from the Croatian striker Mladen Petric. He was the man who scored arguably the most significant goal in English football of the last three years when, in November 2007 he beat Scott Carson to win that infamous Euro 2008 qualifier for Croatia. Danny Murphy fouled Ze Roberto for the free-kick and Petric struck a shot which beat the wall in a tight arc and found the top corner.

Limping at the start of the second half Zamora was replaced by Clint Dempsey before the hour was up. Well-controlled by the German international Jerome Boateng and caught offside on an embarrassing number of occasion this was not Zamora's best night. But things were about to get interesting.

Fulham had not even fashioned a chance since Zamora struck one straight at the goalkeeper Frank Rost in the third minute until, just after the hour, Paul Konchesky played a free-kick on the left short to Damien Duff in the area. Duff put his shot wide of the post but it seemed to re-awaken in Fulham the idea of winning this game.

With the German side increasingly willing to stand-off in midfield, Murphy was able to dictate play. His pass for the first goal was a beauty, picking out the run of Simon Davies through the Hamburg defence. Davies turned the defender Guy Demel with a neat bit of skill and beat him from close range.

The winning goal was expertly taken by Gera who also came into his own once Zamora was off the pitch. He was given two touches when the ball was recycled via Dickson Etuhu from a corner and he beat the Hamburg goalkeeper Rost at his near post. You expected the siege from Hamburg – the final, after all, will be played in their stadium – but it never came. Van Nistelrooy barely got a glimpse of goal.

For those who were there at the final whistle, this was Craven Cottage's most famous night. Not even their most famous son Johnny Haynes, looking down from a mural in the corner of the ground, ever witnessed a night like this. This was Fulham's moment and it could get even better.

Fulham (4-4-1-1) Schwarzer; Pantsil (Nevland, 75), Hangeland, Hughes, Konchesky; Duff, Etuhu, Murphy, Davies; Gera; Zamora (Dempsey, 57). Substitutes not used Zuberbühler (gk), Riise, Smalling, Greening, Dikgacoi.

Hamburg (4-4-2) Rost; Demel, Boateng, Mathijsen, Aogo; Tesche (Rincon, 56; Guerrero, 79), Jarolim (Rozehnal, 90), Ze Roberto, Pitroipa; Petric, Van Nistelrooy. Substitutes not used Hesl (gk), Berg, Arslan, Schulz.

Referee C Cakir (Turkey).

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