When the bigwigs in UEFA decided to reshuffle the format of the old UEFA Cup, it was met by the inevitable chorus of criticism. The introduction of group stages was the first step in the movement towards the Europa League.
UEFA made further amendments to the format of Europe’s secondary competition with the group stages now involving home and away legs for each team. It is just one step taken by the governing body in order to match its superior brother the Champions League for excitement value and realistically television money. Another new feature is the presence of six match officials.
This evening’s matchup between Fulham and Roma at Craven Cottage is a prime example of the advantages and disadvantages of this new system.
Fulham, who are hardly heavyweights in the competition, entertained one of the giants of Italy, Roma.
They are two clubs with great traditions and a rich history of football legends. Famous football names like Bobby Moore, Francesco Totti and Bruno Conti have graced the shirts of the respective clubs.
On paper it was a mouth watering clash. Under Luciano Spalletti, the Rome side played appealing football. Current manager Claudio Ranieri is looking to continue the attacking mantra.
Indeed it is a nostalgic return to London for the man christened “the Tinkerman” by the English press. With Stamford Bridge just down the road, it was a return to his second home. Meanwhile Fulham have a well earned reputation as club that likes to play attractive football.
Club captain Danny Murphy was absent. Jonathon Greening replaced the stylish midfielder while one of the most intriguing battles of the night was undoubtedly the clash of the two Norwegian brothers: Fulham’s Bjorn Helge Riise and Roma’s John Arne Riise.
It was the younger brother who had the first opportunity in the match. Fulham’s winger had his shot from the right side of the box, well blocked by the Roma rearguard.
It set the tone for a vibrant display in the opening exchanges by the home side. Roy Hodgson’s side pressed the visitors, playing neat and tidy football, agreeable to the eye.
Fulham bombarded Doni’s penalty area with dangerous balls from set pieces. Philippe Mexes and company looked suspect from set pieces.
After 23 minutes, John Arne Riise conceded the sixth corner of the match. His younger brother took the corner for the Cottagers and his curling cross was met by the giant frame of compatriot Bred Hangeland.
The Norwegian centre back somewhat boisterously brushed off his marker Andreolli. Doni ventured from his goal line but failed to punch the ball clear as it met the forehead of Hangeland and thundered into the net.
Roma’s best effort of the first half came from the former Liverpool star Riise. The ball fell to the left footed Norwegian on the left hand side of Fulhams area.
Impulsively he fired a thunderbolt towards Schwarzer’s goal. The ferocious attempt seemed destined for the net, only to be denied by the sharp reactions of Fulham’s Austrian keeper.
The final ten minutes of the half saw the away side exert sustained pressure inside Fulham territory. The pattern continued into the second half.
Despite plenty of possession and smart interchanges between Taddei and Menez, the well tuned defence of Hangeland and Hughes remained resolute. Moreover, Fulham should have increased their advantage with half an hour to play.
Zamora slotted his strike partner Kamara clean through. Doni rapidly rushed off his line, imposing himself in the eyeline of the striker. Kamara drove his effort straight at the feet of the keeper much to the dismay of the Craven Cottage crowd.
It was the last clear cut chance afforded to the home side as Roma relentlessly drove forward. Montenegrin Vucinic arrived on the fore and made an instant impact.
His ambitious shot outside the box was beaten away by Schwarzer. In the same move Vucinic laid the ball off to his captain. However De Rossi volleyed the ball high over the cross bar.
The drama was far from over.
With 15 minutes remaining, Roma were awarded a penalty amid ensuing mayhem amongst the Fulham players and officials.
Stephen Kelly felled Riise in the box. However after receiving consul from his touchline official, Paul Allaerts sent Hangleand off. Queue the defence to start their deliberations with Allaerts and the addition assistant referee at the Putney end.
After passionate protestations from home side, Allaerts reversed his decision, and promptly sent off the correct offender.
The intermittent time between the original award and the correct sending off added to the tension and subsequent pressure upon spot kick taker Menez.
The French international stroked the ball to the left of the goal, only for his effort to be palmed wide by a fantastic dive from Schwarzer.
10 men Fulham prepared to dig deep as Roma continued their onslaught on the Fulham half. Riise met Pizzarro’s whipped cross but drove his effort into the side netting.
With seconds to go, the 23,000 strong home crowd were in jubilant mood with the prospect of victory over the Italian giants.
Roma successfully won a penalty with seconds remaining. Pizzarro’s corner evaded the congested six yard box and fell to the isolated Andreolli. The defender’s strike was deflected past Schwarzer by the head of Pansil.
It immediately deflated the atmosphere inside the stadium as the referee called time on proceedings. It was rotten luck for the Fulham number one who had produced an inspiring performance to keep out the Italians.
It makes for an intriguing clash at the Stadio Olimpico.
Fulham : Mark Schwarzer, Stephen Kelly, Paul Konchesky, Bred Hangeland,Aaron Hughes, Chris Baird, Bjorn Riise, Jonathon Greening, Kamara, Bobby Zamora, Zoltan Gera.
Roma : Alexander Marangao Doni, Nicolas Burdisso, John Arne Riise,Marco Andreolli, Philippe Mexes, Daniele de Rossi, Rodrigo Taddei, Matteo Brighi, Stefano Chuka Okaka, Jeremy Menez, Stefano Guberti
Man of the Match: Mark Schwarzer