DAVID SMITH - Thursday, April 29, 2010
Clint Dempsey saw the last half-hour of action for Fulham as they came back against HSV to book their ticket back to Hamburg's Nordbank Arena to set up a Europa Cup final date with Atletico Madrid.
One week following their goalless first-leg draw in Hamburg Roy Hodgson's men found themselves 90 minutes away from completing the previously-unthinkable run to the Europa League final, however a feisty Hamburg squad assured a thrilling display for the capacity crowd of 25,000-plus.
Hamburg's interim coach Ricardo Moniz had the advantage of the fully healthy attacking spine of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Mladen Petric and Ze Roberto, which immediately put its stamp on the game when the Dutchman's shot from the top of the penalty area was blocked inside of 30 seconds.
The Cottagers appeared unfazed and had a golden opportunity go wanting two minutes later after a slick team effort left Bobby Zamora dangerously with the ball in the six-yard box with a pair of defenders between him and the net. The England World Cup hopeful did his best work to evade one defender and cut back to shake off the second before taking his shot, however Hamburg keeper Frank Rost got his left hand on the ball to prevent the early goal.
The game quickly settled down with Hamburg taking the initiative, dominating both possession and flow, leaving the hosts to grab whatever counter-attacking opportunities they could.
The Germans' consistently threatened down the left side with the speedy pair of Dennis Aogo and Jonathan Pitroipa causing problems for the defense, however it was a rare attack up the middle which ultimately led to the opening goal.
Brazilian maestro Ze Roberto was tripped up by Danny Murphy in the 21st minute as he stormed directly towards the area, setting up a 32-yard set piece chance for the visitors.
Continuing his habit of scoring backbreaking goals on his trips to London, Czech international Mladen Petric fired off a beauty of a free kick, which dipped heavily over the wall before flying into the upper left corner of Mark Schwarzer's goal for the eye-popping lead.
While the goal seemed to momentarily wake up the Cottagers, their push to equalize slowly fizzed as the half wore on, with the halftime whistle bringing a much-needed pause for Hodgson to regroup and motivate his men.
The second half started much as just prior to the intermission with no substitutes by either coach, however the obviously-limping Zamora was removed in the 57th minute in favor of Dempsey, who took on the main forward role as in the first leg one week prior in Hamburg.
Hamburg were perhaps lucky two minutes past the hour mark when central defender Jerome Boateng was just shown yellow for flying into a studs-up tackle on Zoltan Gera, and were fortunate one minute later when a threatening diagonal ball by Damien Duff across goal was out of the reach of any Fulham attackers.
With Hamburg appearing to be firmly in control and headed for the final in their home stadium, a spectacular effort by Simon Davies brought the Cottagers right back into the game with 20 minutes remaining.
A hard forward pass into the area by Danny Murphy was brought down and expertly controlled by Davies, who then cut back around defender Guy Demel and fired his shot past Rost into goal, giving his team hope once again.
The equalizer immediately gave a new life to the Cottagers, who were quickly able to flaunt a more stylish passing approach to put pressure on their opponents.
They needed only six minutes to take full advantage, when a 76th-minute corner took a deflection off of Demel and landed near the feet of Gera to the left of goal, who touched the ball down under his control, turned towards his right and shot past Rost to put the Cottagers ahead.
Stunned by the sudden change of events, the Hamburgers tried desperately to apply pressure on the Fulham defense and Mark Schwarzer in the final 15 minutes, but were thwarted by the determined squad.
An attempted blast from van Nistelrooy with five minutes remaining was blocked by a swarm of Fulham defenders, then the aging Dutch star wasted an opportunity in added time when he was unable to get a good footing on a free ball near goal and sent his weak shot wide right.
Dempsey picked up his first yellow card of the campaign in the last seconds for time wasting - of little concern with only the final remaining - with the final whistle finally blowing to affirm Fulham's place in the final.
The Cottagers will return to Hamburg's Nordank Arena on May 12 to face Atletico Madrid for the Europa League title, who needed an extra-time strike by Diego Forlan to put Liverpool out of their misery.
In the meantime, they must turn their attention towards their final three English Premier League games, beginning with a largely-meaningless home game against West Ham on Sunday.