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Fulham keep their alive dreams

last updated Friday 04th December 2009, 2:04 PM
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Alyson Rudd at The Times

Fulham 1 CSKA Sofia 0

Hopefully today's World Cup draw in South Africa will be as dramatic as the permutations that unfolded last night at Craven Cottage.

Fulham survived a tense second half to keep alive their dreams, if indeed they have such dreams, of progressing to the knockout stage of the Europa League, thanks to Zoltan Gera's early headed goal.

As news filtered through that Basle were losing away to Roma in the other match in Fulham's group, a result that would mean the West London side had to win against CSKA, the Bulgarian outfit became increasingly dangerous. In a nailbiting finish, Damien Duff blocked a shot on the line leaving Roy Hodgson's team knowing that they must beat Basle in Switzerland in two weeks' time to stay in the competition.

Hodgson had stirred up a small controversy in the build-up to this fixture when he claimed that several refereeing "injustices" in the club's two matches against Roma had, for him, marred Fulham's participation in the competition. He reiterated last night that the Barclays Premier League is his priority, but his side have not coped well on the domestic front in the weekend league fixtures immediately after their jaunts in Europe. Eight matches played, none won, apart from the opening one against Portsmouth.

Still, when a shot on the turn by Simon Davies skimmed an upright, the reaction of Hodgson was hardly that of man who no longer cares about the competition. Indeed, Fulham have a proud record in European football, having not lost at home in 12 fixtures.

CSKA arrived in West London with little hope of progressing to the knockout stage, but with plenty in the way of controversy. Luboslav Penev, the coach, had resigned after his side's 3-1 defeat by Basle last month only to change his mind after an emergency meeting.

Penev turned up at the Cottage only 15 minutes before the start of the second half. He had been barred from leaving Bulgaria by a local court because of debt problems, but, in a late twist, was given a reprieve.

Hodgson had a plethora of suspensions, injuries and ineligible players to cope with, but could at least welcome back Danny Murphy from injury. The Fulham captain's return came with a caveat from his manager that he would be "mechanically" able but not match fit.

Murphy illustrated the point by missing a first-half penalty that was won after Gera was crudely upended by Ivan Ivanov. The former Liverpool and England midfield player scooped his spot-kick over the crossbar.

"I don't think it was a mistake to let him take it," Hodgson said, adding that it was the first penalty miss he had witnessed by his team in his two years at the club. Murphy had only seven minutes in which to feel embarrassed because Fulham scored when Gera met a cross by Bjorn Helge Riise.

There was a feeling before the game that the visiting side's hearts would not be in it, but buoyed by their vocal travelling support, they displayed a reasonable workrate and some neat touches. And once their coach turned up, they came to life.

There was much mirth when David Hamilton, the PA announcer, declared the arrival, as a substitute, of Michel Platini, CSKA's Brazilian forward. Michel almost set up an equaliser with a through-ball to Todor Yanchev, but Mark Schwarzer smothered the shot. And Spas Delev produced a neat shot that was close to beating the Fulham goalkeeper.

It looked as if the Fulham bench had their ears glued to events in Rome, with Duff and Clint Dempsey coming on as substitutes when it became clear that the Italian side were winning. But Hodgson said that he was unaware of goals elsewhere.

"I always assumed to get through we would have to win our last two games," he said. And so it has proved. Fulham have it in their own hands to join the likes of Liverpool and Bayern Munich in the knockout stage. They will, however, also travel to Switzerland knowing that for Basle a draw would be enough.

Hodgson believes that the Fulham fans are as annoyed as he is by the refereeing decisions in the matches against Roma, but they will have soon forgotten them should their European adventure continue.

Fulham (4-4-2): M Schwarzer - J Paintsil, B Hangeland (sub: A Hughes, 46min), C Smalling, S Kelly - S Davies (sub: C Dempsey, 70), D Murphy (sub: D Duff, 79), C Baird, B H Riise - Z Gera, R Zamora.
Substitutes not used: D Stockdale, M Saunders, M Briggs, M Uwezu.

Booked: Baird, Paintsil.

CSKA Sofia (3-1-4-2): Z Chavdarov - Y Minev, P Vidanov, I Ivanov (sub: K Yanev, 64) - A Popov - Y Todorov (sub: R Miguel, 72), V Morozs, T Yanchev, K Stoyanov - T Timonov (sub: Michel Platini, 54), S Delev.
Substitutes not used: I Petrov, A Branekov, N Manchev, H Báez.

Booked: Morozs, Minev, Stoyanov.

Referee: P Balaj (Romania).
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