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Saturday 23 September 2017

Forlan seals Fulham's fate

Agony for Hodgson and Cottagers as late strike shatters Europa dream

FOR all the praise belatedly showered upon him, Roy Hodgson went into the first Europa League final still with a bit to prove -- mainly because all his successes had been small wonders.

He started by winning two titles with Halmstad. If you lived in Sweden, you would know how much that meant. But in England the achievement was ignored. And then he picked up a few more with Malmo. And still he could walk down any English street unnoticed.

In Switzerland, too, he became a lifetime hero for steering them to the 1994 World Cup finals, their first for 28 years, and then the 1996 European Championship finals, although by the time his squad arrived in England he was in charge of Inter Milan. Despite financial constraints, he guided Inter into third place in Serie A and the UEFA Cup final.

All of which eventually made a reputation, however modest, in his native land, to which, having made the early mistake of going to Bristol City as the money ran out, he returned, joining Blackburn Rovers.

Hodgson is still dogged by the myth

of his failure there. He did well in his first season, badly in his second. Had it been the other way round, he would not have lost his job.

The long process of restoration culminated in Hodgson's engagement, after a bright spell with Finland, by Fulham, and with Mohamed Al Fayed's club his work has been near miraculous. To have taken the club to their highest league position in the top flight, seventh last season, would have been enough. This Europa League run has marked him out as a motivator, tactician and trainer of the highest order.

Tireless

In the final, Hodgson's team could scarcely have been more expertly prepared. Against superior passers with fine strikers and further quality out wide, they were tireless, not least Damien Duff and Simon Davies in ploughing back to help their full backs, a task that became more demanding as the night wore on.

There was markedly more adventure last night than in the first leg against Hamburg on the same ground, more support for the front man, and half-chances were fashioned. The reprieve from Danny Murphy's uncharacteristic donation to Sergio Aguero that came when Diego Forlan coaxed his shot against, rather than inside, Mark Schwarzer's left-hand post was treated with due gratitude, first Zoltan Gera then Davies cutting deep into Spanish territory.

Atletico Madrid, though, were keeping the ball with so much the greater comfort, and the danger, from Fulham's point of view, lay in falling behind, being made to chase. A miskicked shot, expertly redirected by Forlan, obliged them to confront this fate. And still, as when Hamburg took an aggregate lead at Craven Cottage, Hodgson's men had an answer.

Fortunately for his team-mates' legs, Davies supplied it almost without delay. Not that the pressure was wholly lifted; Fulham ended the first half defending, before going to hear how they would approach the rest of their club's biggest night.

They began by pinning Atletico in their own half, firmly and persistently, for the first time in the match. And now it was the time for Hodgson to withdraw the valiant Zamora in favour of Clint Dempsey.

He had made an identical switch in the 58th minute of the home match with Hamburg, and Davies and Gera scored the goals that saw a more fluent Fulham through.

What a run it had been. What an adventure. You suspect that, whatever Hodgson goes on to do in the rest of his career, nothing will stir more affection in his heart than this. But what is there to come, and where will it be?

People have begun to speculate about the improvement Hodgson could bring at, say, Anfield. For all their problems, Liverpool could offer the challenge of more distinguished players than Fulham and a crowd who demand, often explicitly, attack.

It would be no great surprise if Fulham received the call they must dread, and if it turned out to be from Liverpool, who went for Rafael Benitez after he had plotted a triumph in this competition's predecessor, the Uefa Cup (Valencia overcame the Marseille of Didier Drogba). The ultimate test may yet be offered.

© The Times, London

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