DAVID SMITH - Wednesday, May 12, 2010
Clint Dempsey was an early second-half substitute for Fulham in their Europa League final against Atletico Madrid, however the Cottagers' quest for glory was cut short thanks to the heroics of Diego Forlan.
The team was given a pregame boost with the inclusion of leading target-man Bobby Zamora in the starting lineup after his participation had been in question in the weeks before due to a nagging Achilles injury.
As in the previous knockout-round games since returning from injury, the American was left on the bench from the start by head coach Roy Hodgson to serve as a fresh pair of legs at the point when Zamora's could no longer be of service to the team.
Both teams probed the opposing defenses with halfhearted attacks in the opening minutes, leaving the first real chance to fall to Los Rojiblancos in the 11th minute.
A turnover by Danny Murphy allowed Argentinean youngster Sergio Aguero space to advance up the right side of the midfield before sending in a diagonal pass across the area to Uruguayan marksman Diego Forlan, whose low shot back towards the far corner careened off the post and barely out of danger.
Zamora showed his worth in the 20th minute when he held the ball long enough to lay it off to Simon Davies just outside the left corner of the area, but the Welshman's volley flew safely high of 19 year-old David de Gea's goal.
Atletico looked the more in control of the two teams during much of the first half, and the weaving play of Aguero from the left side was a troublesome thorn in Fulham's side, drawing - and often beating - the attentions of multiple defenders.
The presumed member of Argentina's World Cup squad for South Africa was in the middle of the action for the team's opening goal in the 32nd minute. Portuguese veteran Simão popped a short, high pass to the youngster on the edge of the area, which he controlled with his chest before mis-hitting his volleyed shot towards goal.
Luckily for the Spanish team, Aguero's weak shot rolled directly in front of Forlan lurking a few yards out, who instinctively blasted the ball past Schwarzer on the turn to put his team ahead.
The goal seemed to immediately open play for both teams, and the Cottagers needed only five minutes to net an equalizer.
Zamora did well to maintain possession in Atletico's danger area before barely losing control of the ball, however Damien Duff made a sliding tap of the loose ball over to Zoltan Gera on the right side of the penalty area. The Hungarian striker's cross across goal took a slight headed deflection off of a defending player occupied by the sizable Zamora before landing at the feet of Davies, who blasted from short range past the outstretched Spanish keeper for the stunning equalizer.
Momentum stayed with Hodgson's squad after the intermission, with an impressive passing game putting pressure on Madrid in the opening minutes, and Gera being a heavy touch away from possibly putting away Fulham's second of the evening in the 52nd minute after darting behind the defense.
Dempsey took the field for the limping Zamora, who had earlier in the week withdrawn himself from any consideration in Fabio Capello's World Cup squad to undergo surgery over the summer, after 55 minutes, and kept the opposing defense on their toes with his energetic play and a pair of close offside calls.
Duff's play on the right wing continued to provide nervous moments for the Madrid defense, particularly a cross to the far post that was just barely too far for Gera's leaping attempt with 21 minutes remaining, but Atletico were the ones to slowly turn matters their way as regular time wound down.
A long free kick by Reyes from distance following an Etuhu foul on Aguero forced a tricky save by Schwarzer with 15 minutes remaining, then extended pressure in the closing minutes had the Fulham faithful holding their breath when it appeared that Brede Hangeland would be penalized for tripping up Aguero in the area in the final seconds of added time .
The referee's whistle stayed silent however, with Italian official Nicola Rizzoli instead calling time several seconds later to send the contest into extra time.
With both teams winded after a hard 90 minutes, Dempsey's aggressive attacking play kept Los Rojiblancos wary of a breakaway in the opening minutes of added time. The tireless Forlan showed his quality, however, first crossing barely too high for an Aguero header attempt in the 101st minute, then working his way along the left touchline and dropping a pass right directly in front of an opening in goal, only to see Aguero's awkward shot slide tantalizingly wide left in the dying seconds of the first extra time period.
Dempsey again was a major factor in Fulham's push in the final 15-minute period before a potential penalty shootout, drawing a pair of free kicks less than five minutes after the brief intermission that allowed Murphy to swing the ball into the danger area, albeit without any result to show for it.
With the prospect of a shootout fast approaching which would test the wits of the 37 year-old Schwarzer with an opposing keeper barely more than half his age, the game took a tragic turn for the Cottagers thanks again to Atletico's lethal South American combo.
Aguero barely kept the ball from crossing the endline to the left of Fulham's goal before sliding a low centering cross towards Forlan, which the Uruguayan deftly flicked the ball in from five yards for the 116th minute go-ahead, and his second of the evening.
The shocked Cottagers poured everything they had towards de Gea's goal in the closing seconds in a desperate effort to force penalties, but Italian referee called a stop to matters after two minutes of added time confirming the Spanish team as the inaugural Europa League champions and sending Hodgson's squad back to London just short of their first-ever piece of silverware.