Van Nistelrooy kept at bay after Fulham show fighting spirit
Ruud van Nistelrooy? He was quiet. But so was everyone else. The opening act of Fulham's Europa League semi-final was one of those first legs darkened by the shadow of the 90 minutes to come.
After this sound result, the hope of Fulham returning to Hamburg on May 12 for the final is firmly alive, but it is tempting to wonder whether Roy Hodgson's side would have gone into next Thursday's return at Craven Cottage as strong favourites had they showed a little more adventure.
Fulham produced a performance last night that was responsible, prudent and pragmatic, and they leave Germany -- by plane, this time -- on level terms. But Hamburg looked no better than any of the formidable opponents Fulham have overcome on their magnificent European tour, so it was a shame from their perspective that they were unable to source an away goal.
It was only a few years ago that English football's debating societies would ponder whether Van Nistelrooy or Thierry Henry was the finest striker in the land. Henry's status at Barcelona has dipped to such an extent that the poor man has even been linked with a move to Major League Soccer, but Van Nistelrooy is resurgent since leaving Real Madrid for Hamburg in January.
His are a team in need of a talisman. The Europa League has made Fulham's season; Hamburg need it to save theirs. Dismal recent league form has led them to sink to seventh in the Bundesliga and made it likely that Bruno Labbadia, the coach, will be replaced after only one campaign.
Who would you rather have in your team, Van Nistelrooy or Bobby Zamora? A question that would have seemed ludicrous a couple of months ago now seems legitimate.
Zamora entered the match with 19 goals this season. Six came in the Europa League, including a strike after 20 seconds in the previous round that helped to eliminate Wolfsburg. And we almost had a very early goal here -- but the other way. Van Nistelrooy threatened to run clear on goal inside the first minute but delayed his shot and was caught and blocked off.
Hamburg were firmly on top, but Fulham almost pinched the lead after 14 minutes. Zamora's smart flick gave Zoltan Gera space for a shot that deflected off Joris Mathijsen and narrowly wide.
The devious dribbling of Jonathan Pitroipa down the left caused Fulham angst, but otherwise they smothered Hamburg with typical solidity. The trouble with the soak-then-surge tactics was that while Roy Hodgson's side were adept at absorbing pressure in the first half, they offered nothing up front. Either Fulham's passing was wayward or Zamora too isolated.
Fulham kept misplacing the ball in the opening stages of the second period, then lost their star man.
Zamora, who has a long-standing Achilles problem, walked off gingerly in the 52nd minute and was replaced by Clint Dempsey. Dempsey's first notable contribution was to tumble in the box under a challenge from Jerome Boateng. Nothing was given, though Dempsey appeared to have been shoved in the back.
Midway through the half, a clever chipped pass from Danny Murphy sent Gera clear, but he brought the ball down with his hand as he tried to control it and was rightly booked.
At the other end, Mark Schwarzer made two good saves in close succession, tipping over efforts from Pitroipa and Piotr Trochowski.
Perhaps Fulham were leg-weary after their travels, or possibly it was the lack of possession but Hamburg grew stronger as the game entered its final stages. But they mustered few clear-cut opportunities.
Since this was Fulham's 57th game of the season, reached via a 17-hour coach journey, there were certainly mitigating circumstances. But after all that travelling to get here, it felt last night that they never quite fully arrived. (© The Times, London)