It is a warm, sunny evening in West London. The sun sparkles on the Thames in the pre-match aerial shots of Craven Cottage, but there is a sense of calm before the storm in the air. Tonight, Fulham plays host to the biggest match in their history. Sometimes, it helps just to repeat the following sentence in order to assist with letting it sink in. This evening, Fulham play Hamburg SV for a place in the final of the Europa League and it is, of course, a sell-out. It’s also not unwinnable. Hamburg lost 5-1 at the weekend and fired their coach. All is not happy in the north of Germany. But have Fulham, who have already deposited the German champions Wolfsburg and Juventus on their backsides in this competition, got enough in the tank to find their way into the Europa League final?
Hamburger Sport-Verein, then. Six times German champions and one-time champions of Europe, in 1983. The team that wrestled Kevin Keegan from Liverpool. The club of Horst Hrubesch, Felix Magath and Manny Kaltz. This is a club that has already won the European Cup and the European Cup Winners Cup, yet still needs this trophy to join the rarified air of clubs that have completed the hat-trick of winning all three European trophies. When much of what we in England see of German football consists of little more than the national team and the “FC Hollywood” of Bayern Munich, it may seem almost forgivable to forget that Hamburg are German football royalty, but this is what they are – the only club to have played in the Bundesliga since its inception in 1963 without having been relegated. They will host this year’s Europa League final, whether they edge through this evening or not.
Fulham, though, are very much here as equals tonight. The two clubs’ goalless draw at the 57,000 capacity Volksparkstadion in the first leg of this semi-final was a taut, tense affair, although it feels as if the biggest problem for Fulham this evening will be their lack of an away goal. Away goals have felt more important than usual in this year’s European competition, and not having one could prove to be a problem this evening against a team that is capable of scoring against anybody. Within three minutes of the start, however, Fulham have a golden chance when Bobby Zamora breaks free on the left hand side of the penalty area, but his shot is blocked by the Hamburg goalkeeper Rost and the rebound is deflected wide. Perhaps there was something in the talk of his injury. Perhaps it was too soon after kick-off. Whatever the explanation, it’s a glorious opportunity spurned.
They pay the price for it midway through the half. Danny Murphy’s tackle on Ze Roberto is a little rash, but the resulting free kick seems a little far out for a goal. All of this, however, is reckoning without Mladen Petric, who loops a wonderful shot, up and over the wall, out of Mark Schwarzer’s reach and into the top corner of the net. It’s a magnificent free kick and its well worthy of the latter stages of a European competition – a crucial away goal that leaves Fulham needing two to win. For the rest of the half, the visitors look completely in control. Fulham prod and poke at them, but Hamburg’s defence is superbly led by Jerome Boateng and half-time comes with no injury time whatsoever, Bobby Zamora looking exhausted and Hamburg with one foot in the final.
The second half starts to a wall of noise, but events on the pitch aren’t radically different to those of the first half – to start with, at least. Early in the second half, Zamora is replaced and Fulham perk up, creating their best chance since the third minute just after the hour when a free kick is dragged back to Damian Duff, whose side-foot across the face of goal is only a foot ahead of the incoming Clint Dempsey. It’s a hint that Fulham can still claw their way back into the match, but they still need to create more and attack more directly if they are going to get the two goals that they need to win.
With a shade over twenty minutes left to play, though, Fulham suddenly find a route back into the match. Danny Murphy craftily flicks the ball through to Simon Davies. He’s toe-to-toe with Guy Demel, but flips the ball past him and rolls it under Rost to bring Fulham level. The Craven Cottage volume level rises by what may have previously been considered to be an impossible couple of notches, and seven minutes later the tie is turned completely on its head. A corner from the right hand side finds the Hamburg defence suddenly and unexpectedly in disarray, the ball falls kindly for Zoltan Gera who seems to have an age to turn and sweep the ball past Rost, putting Fulham in front and fifteen minutes from the final of the Europa League.
This wasn’t in Hamburg’s script. They had spent much of the second half slowly retreating to a more and more defensive formation and it had been successful, too, as if their temporary coach Bernard Moniz had sat his players down in front of Internazionale last night and said to them, “Right, go out and do that“. However, the seven minute turn around leaves them hopelessly wrong-footed. Tomas Rincon, a substitute that has been on the pitch for just over twenty minutes, is replaced by Paolo Guerrero. It’s a sign of panic, and it’s too late for Hamburg to switch gears. As the match ticks into injury time, Ruud Van Nistelrooy snatches a shot across the face of goal but the ball sails well wide whilst, at the other end, the Hamburg goalkeeper Rost, who is playing as if he has switched position to play as sweeper, hauls Dempsey down outside the penalty area and narrowly avoids a red card.
And with that comes the full time whistle. The feeling of perpetutal schadenfreude that often seems to accompany watching European football in England these days has been washed away, for this evening at least. Fulham, one of this year’s feel good stories, have swept into the Europa League final and will return to the Volksparkstadion next month for a final against Atletico Madrid, who eliminated Liverpool in extra-time this evening. Moreover, they thoroughly deserved it this evening. Hamburg had seemed comfortable at half-time, but a Fulham side that some have said has looked tired over the last couple of weeks or so managed to find some final reserves of energy and turn the tie upon its head. Hamburg will have to lick their wounds and put their hopes of a clean sweep of European trophies on hold for now. Fulham supporters, meanwhile, can start dreaming of a trip to the Reeperbahn and the Volksparkstadion.