Tonight saw biggest game for Fulham since the 2003 UEFA Cup Third round tie with Hertha Berlin, and arguably more important than that. Playing host to AS Roma and starting at the top of Group E, the Whites had a chance to take a strong points lead.
Johnson and Murphy were injured, and so the team was not quite the one that Hodgson would perhaps have wanted to play, but the atmosphere looked great and the Cottage was full.
The first few minutes saw Fulham take the game straight to the Italians. A Gjorn Helge Riise cross was met by a defender’s boot and went narrowly wide. A series of corner kicks included one which was tapped back to Greening for a shot, parried by the Roma keeper.
Roma did threaten themselves, but Fulham were able to put together several attacks and win corners. The Riise brothers had a tussle over the ball, with the younger winning the ball letting Kelly try a slow curving shot to the car corner. While Bjorn Helge seems to be fairly popular, the older John Arne is not well liked at Fulham, following the time when he was lined up to sign for the club and late on in the process decided to go to Liverpool instead.
Following a close call at the other end from De Rossi, Fulham pushed forward again and got another corner. Hangeland took a great header above the keeper’s head to put Fulham one up after 23 minutes.
John Arne Riise did have a good game for Roma, and had a good chance to equalise after about 30 minutes with a half-volley from a corner. Schwarzer had to stretch to make the save. Play became a bit ragged as the half drew on, but Fulham still appeared to be on top. They could not create many more good chances though, and Zamora kept falling foul of the offside trap and getting bogged down with his back to goal.
For the second half, Konchesky was replaced with Pantsil, presumably to rest him before the weekend game. Roma came out with a bit more purpose, and did put a fair amount of pressure on Fulham for the first ten minutes. However, the home side did defend with some confidence, and did look dangerous on the break.
After an hour, Nevland came on for Zamora. Bobby Z had actually been making quite a bit of the play, but Nevland almost scored in the Hull game with his first touch as a sub, so again it looked like a means to protect a top player. Again, the change seemed to let Roma into the game more, and there were a couple of chances to score – Vucinic took a blistering shot from some way out that needed a quality save.
Duff came on for BH Riise with 15 minutes to go, and then followed a bizarre sequence of events. JA Riise got into the box and was brought down by Kelly, and fell at the feet of Hangeland. The referee awarded a penalty (correctly), but then showed a red card to Hangeland. There was confusion as the Fulham players disputed with the referee and his assistant (one of the experimental ones on the byline) as to who the card should go to and which official made the mistake. Eventually, Kelly was shown the red and Hangeland’s was rescinded. I’m not sure it warranted a red card,
Schwarzer then saved the penalty. It seemed that fate was on our side.
The rest of the game was very nervous for Fulham, with Roma able to use the extra man to press, and a few silly mistakes creeping in. As the last few seconds of stoppage time were being counted down, Roma were finally able to capitalise, scoring from a corner as Pantsil got in front of Schwarzer.
I can’t say I wasn’t stunned by the equaliser, although back in August I’d have been happy with that result (on the assumption that Roma would be the team making the running in the group. As it is, Fulham are in second place, one point behind Basel (who beat Sofia 2-0 away) and one point above Roma. The away tie in Rome is on November 5th, and it’s a game that may decide the outcome of the campaign. CSKA Sofia appear to be the whipping boys, and Basel are likely to be a strong contender.
Back to the Premiership though, with only 65 hours to regroup before Fulham play at Manchester City on Sunday. That will be a tough game, as will the home tie against Liverpool the following week, but hopefully the Whites can continue their unbeaten run.