Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Fulham fall just short against Athletico Madrid

No-one could say Fulham lacked spirit and heart and character as a wonderful footballing adventure came to an end.

After extra time. After the most dramatic of nights and the most valiant of performances.

After a late and deflected winner from striker Diego Forlan, a failure at Manchester United but a revelation in Spain.

Yes, Atletico Madrid perhaps just deserved to lift the first Europa League trophy after a 2-1 victory in an absorbing final in which they were marginally the better side technically.

But take nothing away from Fulham.

They had brought so much to a competition which so many had said was devalued.

They had not fielded weakened teams like at least one other English club. Take note Martin O'Neill at Aston Villa. They had been proud to represent the Premier League.

And if in the end they lacked the fine touch and the pure footballing talent to lift the trophy in the 19th match of a gruelling campaign then it was by the slenderest of margins.

It may have been different if key striker Bobby Zamora had been fully fit but he lasted less than an hour with the Achilles problem he had been battling and Fulham's capacity to hold and keep the ball went with him.

That gave Atletico the edge as the match and the extra minutes sapped energy from aching limbs.

It was a match in which Atletico enjoyed the early domination. They were neater in their passing, swifter of thought, more inventive.

In Sergio Aguero they had the game's most gifted talent. The Argentinian, who has been linked with a move to Chelsea, is the son-in-law of Diego Maradona and at times he appeared determined to emulate the dribbling trickery of the football legend.

He is certainly pleasing on the eye, but he is also productive, his mis-hit shot falling to Forlan who slid home Atletico's first goal after 31 minutes.

At that point it looked a case of not who would win but how many Atletico would score. They were all over the London side.

Yet it seems in this extraordinary season Fulham are at their best when facing adversity.

That was the case against Shakhtar Donetsk, Juventus, Wolfsburg and Hamburg.

It was the same against Atletico, Zoltan Gera chipping the ball to the far post six minutes after Fulham had gone behind and Simon Davies smashing home the volley for the equaliser.

There may he harder-working midfielders in the Premier League than Davies but it is doubtful and that strike appeared to jolt the Spaniards. It seemed they forgot their game plan. The swagger left them.

Even so a 1-1 scoreline at half-time was flattering to Fulham and harsh on the Spaniards.

Cue a chance for Hodgson to do his work, a master at changing the ebb and flow of a football match. As usual he did it brilliantly, Fulham emerging the more enterprising side, even if goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer was required to produce several fine saves.

Even if Aguero missed from no more than a yard at the end of the first half of extra time as the game became stretched with tired minds and fatigued bodies.

Then came the winner from Forlan after more good work from Aguero. It was cruel.

But take nothing away from Fulham, a club who escaped relegation on the last day of the season two years ago. A club of which English football can be proud. They were fantastic.

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