DAVID SMITH - Thursday, December 17, 2009
Clint Dempsey took the field for the final 20 minutes of Fulham's historic win in Basel while Tim Howard was rested as a largely reserve Toffees squad were beaten in Goodison Park.
FC Basel 2 - 3 Fulham
Clint Dempsey played the final 20 minutes as the Cottagers successfully withstood a valiant comeback effort from their hosts FC Basel, thereby securing second place in Group E and their first-ever spot in the knockout round of European competition.
Forced to travel to Switzerland without a number of key players due to suspension and injury, the burden was on Roy Hodgson to piece together team capable of taking down a strong Basel team which had yet to taste home defeat in the current Europa League campaign, winning each of their five on home soil throughout qualification and group stages by at least two goals apiece.
Further adding to the pressure was the simple fact that Fulham's entire hopes of progressing to the knockout stage for the first time in team history were riding on coming out victorious after the end of 90 minutes.
Perhaps with one eye on the weekend's tough game against Manchester United on Saturday afternoon, Hodgson chose to keep Dempsey as a bench option, along with star defender Brede Hangeland and winger Damien Duff.
Hodgson's midfield immediately made their stamp on the game, limiting both possession and penetration by the Swiss. Despite the clear show of domination, they were nearly forced to head into halftime without anything to show before a quick turn of fortune practically sealed the win.
With three minutes left before the interval, a quick restart after a protested foul saw the Cottagers head quickly into Basel's danger area, with Bjorn Helge Riise providing the cross from the right side, perfectly placed for Bobby Zamora's diving header to the far post.
Just three minutes later the same pair teamed up again, with Riise again setting up the hopeful Trinidadian international for another powerful header inside the left post for the sudden 2-0 lead.
Feeling the game was in their hand, Fulham let off the gas after the break, allowing the hosts to gradually sneak their way into their danger zone. This let-down cost them dearly when the referee whistled a highly-questionable handball in the area on Chris Smalling, with Alexander Frei scoring from the spot in the 64th minute to cut the lead to one.
The Cottagers quickly recognized the threat to their knockout round hopes and nabbed a security goal with 13 minutes remaining as 70th-minute substitute Dempsey sprung Stephen Kelly down the right, who sent in a low cross for Zoltan Gera to one-time past Basel keeper Massimo Colomba for 3-1.
The hosts made the final moments nervous as they again cut the lead to one goal as Marco Streller headed in a cross from Valentin Stocker with three minutes remaining, but the Cottagers weathered the final storm and kept all the spoils for themselves.
The win pushes the Cottagers past their deflated hosts into second place in Group E, now guaranteed a spot in the final 32 of the competition, where they will be paired in Friday's draw with either a group winner from the Europa League or one of the four best third-place teams from the Champions League.
With the team's European safety temporarily settled, Hodgson now turns his focus towards Saturday's league visit from Manchester United, as the team tries to extend their current six-game unbeaten run across all competitions.
Tim Howard was rested and watched from the bench as a weakened Everton squad fell by a 1-0 scoreline at home to BATE in a meaningless finale to group play. Despite the loss, the Toffees finished second in Group I to advance to the round of 32.
Jared Jeffrey did not suit up for Club Brugge as they secured their spot in the knockout round with a 1-0 win at home over Toulouse on Wednesday to secure second place in Group J.
Dominic Cervi played no part as Celtic came back from three goals down to take a point in their 3-3 tie at Rapid Wien on Thursday. Their third-place finish in Group C still however eliminates them from the upcoming knockout round.
Bryan Arguez did not take part on Wednesday in Hertha's 1-0 victory over Portuguese club Sporting, which secured second place in Group D and a spot in the round of 32 for the team.