Dempsey Double Puts Fulham on the Verge of the Europa League Group Stages
Perhaps it was an omen that the monsoon-esque downpours ceased just as Fulham kicked off against Ukrainian opposition Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk (at home, it should be noted, after UEFA reversed the legs in Dnipro’s favour). Martin Jol and the Craven Cottage faithful were to witness another controlled and professional performance by the Whites in Europe, earning a three-goal triumph that was anything but a damp squib…
The Cottagers began brightly, dominating possession with skipper Danny Murphy dictating proceedings in the middle. A brilliant Brede Hangeland through-ball released promising young full-back Matthew Briggs down the left only to be smartly denied at the near post by former Fulham goalkeeper, Jan Laštůvka, in the Dnipro net.
The Whites were to fluctuate from precise and incisive passing moves to occasionally lacklustre and sloppy passages of play, but on the whole controlled the early stages of the match, albeit without creating too many clear cut chances.
A number of corners looked like providing an opening for Fulham, with Steve Sidwell wasting the Cottagers’ best opportunity, heading tamely at Laštůvka from Damien Duff’s corner when unmarked on the penalty spot.
The Ukrainians did eventually enjoy a spell of possession, but were kept firmly at arm’s length by Fulham, mustering only a couple of wayward long-range efforts.
A tactical change by Jol which saw Clint Dempsey move from supporting Bobby Zamora to the left flank, with Duff switching to the right and Pajtim Kasami relocating to the middle off Zamora was to pay immediate dividends for the Whites.
Dempsey’s willingness to run with the ball, coupled with numerous deft and positive touches gave Fulham an added impetus, and two deserved goals were duly delivered just shy of the break.
Firstly, Briggs weaved his way past a pair of Dnipro defenders to the left byline before firing across the face of the goal, with Aaron Hughes finding the far corner for a rare goal in Fulham colours – just his second strike in five seasons with the Whites (see the first goal here).
Then, just four minutes later, the lead was doubled. A sharp pass to Stephen Kelly on the right from Murphy was eventually touched back to Sidwell, whose precise cross found Dempsey unmarked in the middle, the American having no trouble firing into the Dnipro net from all of six yards (see the second goal here).
A comfortable two-nil half-time lead for the Cottagers was further improved shortly after the restart. Fulham began brightly, with Kasami forcing a corner down the right flank. Kasami turned the set-piece into a quick one-two with Duff, before lofting a teasing and inviting cross for Dempsey to rise and nod past Laštůvka (see the third goal here). Three-nil on 49 minutes, and the game was all-but over.
What followed was a large period of frustration for the Fulham players and fans. A number of crass hacks by Dnipro players went unpunished by Czech referee Pavel Královec, who further infuriated the Whites by allowing a number of clear foul throws by Dnipro, booking Duff for his first foul of the night, and needlessly carding Zamora for querying an offside call.
With Dnipro’s #10 Yevhen Konoplianka increasingly prominent, the Ukrainian side commendably saw more of the ball as the second half progressed and Fulham sought to sit back on their advantage, especially so after Murphy was withdrawn shortly after the hour mark.
However, although the threat Dnipro posed increased with time, the majority of their efforts remained from range and on the whole with poor direction. Indeed, with Hughes and Hangeland impressively nullifying any threats in front of the Fulham goal, ‘keeper Mark Schwarzer did not face a shot on target until the 80th minute and was only pressed into further meaningful action on a couple of occasions.
Consequently it was Fulham who came closest to adding to the night’s goal tally when substitute Dickson Etuhu sparked a smart break down the right. Following neat interplay between Kelly and Moussa Dembélé, Zamora somehow half-volleyed over from five yards when found completely unmarked by an excellent Kelly cross.
The miss was not to be rued though, and as the match petered to a close, Fulham fans were left to reflect on a job well done; one goal in the Ukraine will leave their hosts needing five, surely a near insurmountable task. Fulham manager Martin Jol remarked: ‘We could have scored four or five. They could have scored a goal as well but I think 3-0 is probably a realistic scoreline.’ It is an advantage which should prove too much, even for ‘a good team with quality players,’ as Jol described them afterwards.
Jol will also have had impressed on him the importance of Murphy to the Cottagers. The former Liverpool midfielder’s composure and efficiency on the ball, coupled with his directing vocal presence, were notably missed when he was withdrawn on 67 minutes, undoubtedly with Sunday’s league encounter with Wolves in mind.
Etuhu, Murphy’s replacement, and Sidwell were frequently bypassed in the middle over the last twenty-five minutes, often second to loose balls and careless with their distribution. Although Jol’s transfer attentions have been largely focused on a right-back and an extra striker, acquiring adequate cover for the 34-year-old Murphy before the window closes could well be key to Fulham’s prospects in what looks like being a busy season for the Whites.
Elsewhere, 20-year-old left-back Matthew Briggs further enhanced his growing reputation with another eye-catching display. After surviving a couple of awkward moments early on he produced a number of impressive forward raids down the left flank, whilst remaining solid defensively throughout. It will not be long until John Arne Riise is sweating over his place in the starting line-up for the Whites.
19-year-old Pajtim Kasami, a summer signing from Palermo, also shone on his first start for the club, with particular attention being drawn to a sweet left-foot that delivered a number of accurate and threatening crosses and passes throughout the evening.
With Zamora typically selfless, Duff surprisingly subdued and Kelly quietly efficient, it was perhaps Clint Dempsey who walked away with the proverbial man of the match gong for two smartly-taken goals and his industrious all-round display. ‘It was important to get off to a good start and get some goals tonight,’ the versatile American commented afterwards. ‘We were able to do that and we’ve put ourselves in a good position ahead of next week’s return leg in the Ukraine.’
A good position it is indeed, with the Whites looking well placed to progress from the play-offs to the Europa League group stage for the second time in three seasons. And we all know what happened that time, don’t we…