Fairytale Fulham reach final
Fulham completed their fairytale run to the UEFA Europa League final as the unfashionable English club defeated Hamburg 2-1 in the semi-final second leg on Thursday.
Roy Hodgson's side looked on the verge of elimination when they trailed to Mladen Petric's first half free-kick with just 21 minutes left at Craven Cottage. But two goals in seven minutes from Simon Davies and Zoltan Gera sealed a dramatic 2-1 aggregate triumph and a place in the final against Atletico Madrid at Hamburg's own Nordbank Arena on 12 May.
"It's the most important goal I have ever scored so I'm very, very happy. It's amazing," Gera said after the final whistle went. "We did so well, every single player."
Hodgson's team began their European adventure against Lithuania's FK Vetra way back in July and had already exceeded all expectations in a magical run that included famous victories over holders Shakhtar Donetsk, Italian giants Juventus and German champions Wolfsburg. The Cottagers had even survived the draining effects of their enforced 18-hour bus journey to Germany in the first leg in Hamburg last week.
Fulham have never won a major honour at home or abroad, but they will play in a first European final after the most significant result in the club's 131-year history. With so much at stake, 19-goal leading scorer Bobby Zamora agreed to have a painkilling injection so he could start after missing Sunday's defeat at Everton with an Achilles injury.
Zamora had a chance to impress watching England coach Fabio Capello, but the former Tottenham forward never looked fit and was unable to convert a golden opportunity in the second minute. Gera's flick sent Zamora through on goal yet, with just Frank Rost to beat, he shot straight at the Hamburg goalkeeper before his effort from the rebound was scrambled away for a corner.
It proved a costly miss as Ricardo Moniz's side gradually took control before going ahead in the 22nd minute. After Ze Roberto was fouled by Danny Murphy 35 yards from goal, Croatia forward Petric stepped up and unleashed a ferocious free-kick that caught Australian goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer slightly flat-footed at it sped past him.
Now Fulham needed to score twice as a draw would eliminate them on away goals. Hodgson's side had recovered from a worse position to go through against Juventus, but the Germans, who had sacked boss Bruno Labbadia earlier in the week, were pushing for a killer second goal and Jonathan Pitropia was narrowly off-target with a powerful drive just before half-time.
Trouble for Zamora
Zamora began limping heavily as the match wore on and it was no surprise when he was replaced by American forward Clint Dempsey in the 57th minute. Dempsey added more verve to the previously subdued Fulham forward line and Damien Duff went close with a first-time shot from Paul Konchesky's low free-kick.
Fulham were leaving more gaps at the back as they searched for an equaliser and David Jarolim forced Schwarzer to tip over after a quick Hamburg counter-attack. There was no sign of Fulham throwing in the towel though and Davies brought the hosts right back into the tie 69th minute.
Murphy chipped a defence-splitting pass to Davies and the Welsh midfielder showed great skill to turn Guy Demel before firing past Rost. Suddenly, Fulham could sense another remarkable European victory and they piled forward.
Their pressure was rewarded in the 76th minute when Davies's corner ran through to Hungary forward Gera, who kept his composure to control and shoot past Rost as the Craven Cottage faithful went wild.