Fulham had dealt with everything thrown at them in Europe this season, from the black-and-white-shirted offspring of the Old Lady of Turin to Mother Nature’s volcanic eruptions, but they were finally undone when Lady Luck decided to be a Spanish hussy for the night, shamelessly smiling on Atlético Madrid.
How cruel, how utterly unfair this defeat was on Roy Hodgson’s relentlessly purposeful side, who lost to two suspect goals from Diego Forlan, the Manchester United discard who once again embarrassed English opposition. There’s only one F in Forlan.
Fulham had 11 impressive men, Atlético only two: Forlan and Sergio Agüero. Fulham had reacted well to adversity, fighting back from Forlan’s controversial opener to equalise brilliantly through Simon Davies. Fulham had dealt with the loss of Bobby Zamora and then Damien Duff, departing early as their injuries caught up with them.
The moment that made a mockery of sporting justice arrived deep into extra-time. When Agüero crossed, Forlan flicked the ball goalwards, his effort clipping Brede Hangeland to beat Mark Schwarzer and break Fulham’s hearts. Nobody, just nobody connected to Fulham Football Club deserved this iniquity.
Not Hodgson, who had again set his team up brilliantly. Not his players, who were magnificent from Paul Konchesky at the back to Danny Murphy and Davies in midfield and the outstanding Zoltan Gera, first up front, then in midfield but pretty much everywhere.
Not Fulham’s fans, who sang their hearts out for two hours, frequently chanting, “Stand up if you still believe’’, making a whole stand rise in salute to Hodgson’s industrious players. The supporters’ flags said it all: “England Expects, Fulham Believes’’. And they did.
The Fulham family had come from far and wide for this, from Dubai and Australia as well as south-west London, and they were not going to fall quiet simply because a United reject had scored.
They lifted the volume when Forlan struck his first, and particularly rallied when the Uruguayan added his second, attempting to console Hodgson’s stricken players from afar. As Hodgson embraced his coaching staff at the final whistle, as Atlético’s bench poured on to the pitch, Fulham’s players slumped to the sodden turf.
Davies sunk to his haunches, shaking his head, unable to absorb what had befallen Fulham. Gera finally stopped moving, sitting still on the grass, emotionally and physically drained. Dickson Etuhu, who had grown in influence after half-time, lay there, his shirt draped over his face as if unwilling to face up to this disappointment. None of them deserved this most brutal of late blows.
None of Etuhu and Gera, Davies and the rest deserved to bow out like this after giving everything for so long, this game reflecting an extended season that had begun against FK Vetra in July. They merited something from this marathon, from running through the wall with such a small squad. They can reflect that Atlético’s strike-force was worth more than £60 million, while their leading light, Zamora, could offer only 55 minutes before his Achilles gave way.
Hodgson will find little consolation but he can take pride in his team’s performance. All of Fulham’s qualities had been on display in the first half, particularly the resilience to recover from Forlan’s goal after 32 minutes.
Fulham fans waved a banner proclaiming “Roy for Prime Minister’’ but the No 10 they needed to focus on was Agüero. Forlan took the goal but Agüero caught the eye.
The stocky, spinning top of an Argentine striker shimmered with menace in the first period, seizing on a rare poor piece of control by Murphy, darting down the inside-left channel before releasing Forlan. The Uruguayan tamed the ball with his left and then swept a low shot from left to right, clipping a post. This seasoned scourge of English defences was merely setting his sights.
Jose Antonio Reyes began the move for Forlan’s goal, racing down the right with trademark pace before cutting inside and sweeping a crossfield pass to Simao. Atlético’s left-winger knocked the ball back inside to Agüero, who flicked it up before scuffing a shot that appeared to be heading harmlessly through to Schwarzer. Desperately for Fulham, Forlan diverted it at speed into the goal.
Frustration briefly bit into Fulham, who must have suspected Forlan was offside, but all the officials signalled a goal, arguing that Hangeland played the Atlético forward on. Yet there is a strength of character to Fulham under Hodgson, a belief in their ability to overcome adversity, as witnessed so thrillingly against Juventus and Hamburg in earlier rounds.
Fulham fans increased the volume, singing their hearts out for Hodgson’s lads. Feeding on the supporters’ energy, Murphy stepped up a gear, driving his team forward. Zamora, demanding one more shift from his creaking Achilles, suddenly stormed into life, cutting in from the left, overrunning the ball but nudging it on to Duff near the penalty spot.
The Irishman transferred it neatly to Gera, who lifted the ball towards the six-yard box. With Zamora lurking, Paulo Assunçao had to intervene, the Brazilian leaping up to head the ball away from Zamora but on to Davies, whose response was utterly mesmerising.
The Welshman’s volleying technique had already been seen: the head still, the ball leathered, the save made by David de Gea, Atlético’s highly-regarded young keeper. The Spanish teenager had no chance this time, Davies connecting so sweetly with the ball that it disappeared in a blur into the net. Davies’ celebration matched the quality of the goal, almost emulating Marco Tardelli with his wild-eyed, fist-pumping slalom run.
As the tension of the second half mounted, Davies’ ability to strike a dropping ball continued to alarm Atlético. But then, deep into extra-time, came Forlan. Lady Luck should be ashamed of herself.