Fulham 1 – 0 CSKA Sofia

The last home game of the Europa Cup group stage for Fulham, and one that had to be treated as a knockout cup game. CSKA needed a win to have a chance of getting into the next round, and a draw would mean that even if Fulham could beat Basel in the last game, other results would decide who finished in the top two of Group E.

Murphy and Zamora came back from injuries, thankfully, to bolster a side missing key members due to suspensions (less said about some of those red cards the better).

The visitors started brightly, and Fulham were under a little pressure for the first few minutes. Then a break lead Zoltan Gera into the box, for him to be taken down by a defender. The penalty was a clear decision, but Murphy hit the ball over the bar. Despite this, the Whites were spurred on, and a good spell of play led to several chances, culminating in a Gera headed goal in the 14th minute.

CSKA tried to come back straight away, but even with a few hairy moments, the home side held on and settled back into the game. The rest of the first period saw Fulham on top for the most part, but unable to convert attacking possession into solid chances.

For the second half, Aaron Hughes came on for Hangeland, and the CSKA manager appeared for the first time (he’d been kept in Bulgaria by the government over some ‘personal legal issue’, but got his passport in time to get a flight to London this afternoon, and then when he arrived at the Cottage had to talk his way in, but he did make it).

For the beginning of the second half, neither team appeared to have the upper hand, but as the clock ticked away, Sofia began to press as hard as they could, and the last ten minutes were looking very fraught. Duff had to save off the line from their best chance, but there were several close shots that just went wide or over.

Fulham were grateful for the final whistle when it came, and certainly have to rue plenty of good opportunities wasted. In every Group game so far, Fulham have scored one and only one goal, which is not too great, but they have kept clean sheets in two games.

In terms of players, Gera had a great game. Murphy looked solid in midfield in his first game for 7 weeks. I thought Pantsil and Davies combined very well going forward up the right wing. Smalling played his socks off at the back, and he could well get more play in the Premiership this season.

Roma came back from behind to beat Basel 2-1, which means that the Italian side have qualified with a game to spare. It also means that the game in Switzerland in two weeks’ time is all or nothing for Fulham.

CSKA Sofia 1 – 1 Fulham FC

It was a night for experimentation. Roy Hodgson made nine changes to the team that beat Everton on Sunday to create the line up for tonight. Only Stockdale (who stood in for the first-choice keeper at the weekend) and John Pantsil remained. However, Kamara, Gera, Greening, Nevland and Riise are good players who should be competing to be in the first team. I wonder if Hodgson’s strategy is to field essentially two different teams over the next few months. Certainly that would reduce the effect of tiredness, but it would also mean that he has more to do in terms of training and management.

The other experiment is the two extra “referee’s assistants”, who are behind the bylines. Presumably they are there to check for events near the goalmouth. But there are now six match officials, with the ref, two assistants (who used to be called linesmen) and the “4th official” who looks after the dugouts and holds up the electronic board. That’s over half a football team! I’m not sure more people is a better way to go.

I missed most of the first half, as I had to stay later than I’d hoped at work. Just as well, really, it sounds like it was quite boring, with a few chances and only one shot on target.

The second half started fairly brightly, but CSKA went ahead after about 15 minutes through a goal from Michel Platini (no, not that one, a Brazilian lad called Michel Platini Ferreira Mesquita). Fulham almost immediately equalised as Diomansy Kamara scored after a lucky bounce that took him and the ball past the keeper on the edge of the box. After that the game was pretty open, and there were chances from both teams.

Stockdale, who had a good game against Everton, did well to save a Todorov strike later on in the game. It was a surprise to see him come in in preference to last season’s reserver goalie, Pascal Zuberhuhler (who may have worked under Hodgson at Zurich Grasshoppers in 1999 before moving to FC Basel – the Whites’ next Europa Cup opponents). It seems to have paid off.

A draw away is a good result. With Basel beating Roma 2-0, a win in the next home game would put Fulham in a strong position in the group.

CSKA Sofia v Fulham on TV

The game will be shown on ITV4 at 17:30 on 17th September.

The European Tour

Fulham have been drawn in Group E of the Europa Cup, along with AS Roma, FC Basel and CSKA Sofia.

The possible schedule of games (based on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2009%E2%80%9310_UEFA_Europa_League_group_stage) is:

17 Sep CSKA Sofia v Fulham

1 Oct Fulham v FC Basel

22 Oct Fulham v Roma

5 Nov Roma v Fulham

3 Dec Fulham v CSKA Sofia

16 Dec FC Basel v Fulham

This is quite tough for Fulham. Roma are a good Italian team and are likely to be favourites. Basel have made it through the group stages of European competition before, and are easily capable of getting wins against top opposition. CSKA Sofia are dark horses who have been recently let back into European football after a ban over financial problems, but as the last game away could be in the Bulgarian capital, they could be a major block to Fulham hopes of getting into the knock-out phase.

As for travelling… Basel is easy to get to, but as it may be the first game might be a bit tight to organise. Rome is also fairly cheap and easy, but I’m not sure that the Roma fans have the best reputation in the world when it comes to welcoming their English guests (ie: they can get a bit ‘stabby’). Sofia in December for a Thursday night?

Update on September 1, 2009 at 19:40 – That’s what I get for believing Wikipedia! They originally had the CSKA Sofia and Basel games the other way around, and I thought that was the final position. It seems that games were moved to avoid clashes with other teams in the same city / country.

So now I have the choice between a hastily arranged trip to Bulgaria, or a jaunt out to Switzerland just before Christmas. The second option seems to be better – it could either be the swansong of Fulham’s campaign, or the glorious night that we celebrate them reaching the knockout rounds…