DAVID SMITH - Thursday, March 11, 2010
Clint Dempsey completed his return from injury for the Cottagers in a 30-minute cameo as they saw their European hopes sent to the brink thanks to a trio of first-half Juventus goals in Turin.
Dempsey's knee injury in January caused him to miss Fulham's remarkable Round of 32 win over Cup holders Shakhtar Donetsk, but his surprise inclusion on coach Roy Hodgson's bench in the Stadio Olimpico all but assured that he would get a well-deserved taste of the Cottagers' historical battle against the two-time Champions League winners.
Seconds after Fulham keeper Mark Schwarzer pushed David Trezeguet's ninth-minute header wide, defender Nicola Legrottaglie put the Italians ahead on the resulting corner with a powerful free header after being left entirely unmarked by the nearby defenders.
Slack defending paved the way for a second Juve goal in the 25th minute; Antonio Candreva found himself in too big of a crowd just outside the Fulham area and dropped the ball back to Jonathan Zebina, who too easily weaved his way through several defenders before launching his 18-yard shot inside the left goalpost to already have the home supporters looking forward to an inevitable quarterfinal berth.
The Cottagers found a bit of luck in the 36th minute, as a Simon Davies free kick from the left was poorly dealt with in the box by the striped shirt defenders and landed at the feet of Dickson Etuhu directly facing goal. The Nigerian's slightly-deflected shot rolled with ease into the net as backup keeper Alexander Manninger stood helpless several yards away, looking more a buffoon than a Buffon.
Perhaps too anxious for an equalizer, both Brede Hangeland and Zoltan Gera gave Manninger too easy of a task to redeem himself in the following minutes with shots precisely in his direction, and were made to rue their wastefulness before the teams headed in for the break.
They were once again done in on a corner, this time with Trezeguet first firing a shot off the right post, then angling the rebound just inside the other edge of goal in first-half injury time to give Juve a comfortable two-goal advantage at the half.
The second half started out with little of the fire which marked much of the first, with Hodgson opting to bring on his American at the hour mark in hopes of injecting some life into his team.
Goalscorer Legrottaglie picked up a yellow for deliberate handball five minutes later, dooming himself to miss next Thursday's return leg and more importantly giving the Cottagers a prime set piece opportunity from 20 yards out. Central defender Fabio Cannavaro cut off Damien Duff's resulting free kick, keeping the at 3-1.
Fulham midfielder Jonathan Greening returned the favor, assuring he would watch from the stands with Legrottaglie after picking up his second yellow of the knockout state in the 84th minutes for a careless challenge in Juve's half of the field.
Neither team was able to break through in the final minutes, with the scoreboard left as it was, showing a 3-1 win to the Italians.
While the vital away goal will give Hodgson and his men a thin glimmer of hope of coming up spades next week's return leg in London, overcoming the two-goal deficit against one of the continent's most seasoned competitors in European competition presents a formidable task even on their home turf.
In the meantime, Dempsey and his newly-recovered knee will have to temporarily shift their focus towards the domestic campaign, which sees them facing another tough task on Sunday in the form of a trip to Premier League leaders Manchester United's home of Old Trafford.