By Shane Thomas
While Jose Mourinho and his Inter Milan side were providing the answer to the question 'How do you solve a problem like Lionel Messi' on Wednesday, it wasn't until the following evening that one of football's most extraordinary stories was taking place.
If the Champions League is UEFA's golden boy, then the Europa League is its unwanted step-child. The embarrassing one that is always a disappointment to its parents. Stuck in the backwater of Thursday evenings, it is a competition that is becoming increasingly devalued, all the while the format being tinkered with and dressed up to regain its lost credibility. You can almost hear UEFA's executive body desperately entreating, "Why can't you be more like your brother? Everyone loves the Champions League"!
With England's finest being sent packing from the Champions League before the semi-final stage, the eyes of the UK turned to the Europa League for our ego-boosting attempts at European superiority. While Liverpool were looking to salvage their season against Atletico Madrid, Fulham were up against the German side Hamburg. While those in Britain were hoping for a double English success, a betting sort would probably have put their money on Liverpool.
Liverpool had to turn around a one goal deficit from the first-leg in Madrid. But Liverpool have made a habit of overcoming adversity in Europe, particularly when they get teams back to their home ground of Anfield. It's become cliche to say that the legendary Kop End is worth a goal in itself.
Fulham on the other hand, have been pulling up trees in the Europa League this season. They, unlike Liverpool, started their campaign back in July, and have eliminated many of Europe's bigger names on the way to the semis. The holders Shakhtar Donestsk were not only beaten, but beaten comprehensively, and when the Italian giants Juventus came to town, Fulham were four goals in arrears. Against a team who hail from a country where conceding goals in regarded as an insult, Fulham confounded all logic by scoring the four goals needed and sending the grand old lady of Italian football back to Turin in ignominy.
But if Fulham wanted to get to the final they would have a tough assignment against Hamburg. After a 0-0 draw in Germany last week, their failure to score meant that the West Londoners were vulnerable to conceding an away goal. If the goal is sport's most highly prized currency, then the away goal (which counts for double in the event of a draw) is like a winning lottery ticket. And after 29 minutes, Hamburg scored one. A ferociously struck free-kick from the Croatian, Mladen Petric (a name that will forever haunt Steve McLaren) sailing into the top corner of Mark Schwarzer's net.
As the whistle went for half-time, Fulham were being outplayed, their crowd were growing ever more pensive, they needed to score twice, and it was patently obvious to all that their key striker, Booby Zamora was nowhere near fit enough to make the difference. Zamora was soon taken off as his achilles injury flared up to the extent where he could barely run at half pace.
Hamburg looked to be blazing an inexorable path to the final, which takes place in Hamburg's very own stadium. It seemed that the story of the night would be a victory and homecoming for the German side, winning the Europa League in front of their fans, and saving a season that has descended into severe underachievement - Hamburg have had a dreadful season in the Bundesliga and fired their manager only four days before yesterday's match.
At times like this in sport a spark is needed, something to galvanise and inspire belief. Be it a bit of skill to score a goal, a right hook that puts your opponent on the canvas or a home run with bases loaded in the 9th inning. A moment of inspiration can take the expected destination of victory and dramatically change its course.
Fulham got their spark. Simon Davies running on to a Danny Murphy pass in the penalty area. The great Pele said that the most important touch in football is the first one. That was illustrated beautifully by Davies, as Murphy's pass was slightly behind his body at waist height. Davies flicked out his right foot and took the pace off the ball with a sumptuous touch. With the ball now under the Welshman's control he then turned inside Guy Demel before placing the ball past Frank Rost.
The spark arrived, the touch paper was lit, and Fulham scored the pivotal second goal six minutes later. Zoltan Gera reacting sharpest to a loose ball after a Fulham corner and keeping his composure to score from close range.
While the Europa League is Europe's second-tier club competition, the incredible nature of this story cannot be understated. It was not so long ago that Fulham were in danger of dropping out of the Football League, playing against sides of part-time footballers. Two years ago, they were minutes away from being relegated from the Premier League. What their manager Roy Hodgson has done in that time is remarkable. The club have never reached these heights before, and in my opinion, never will again. For a club like Fulham to be one game away from winning a major European title is fairy-tale stuff.
Remember what I said earlier about how precious an away goal can be. Well while Liverpool matched Fulham by scoring twice last night, they also fell prey to letting one in at home. Combined with the goal they conceded in Madrid, it resulted in Liverpool's elimination from the competition. As I said, 'The Kop' can be worth a goal. Liverpool didn't realise that can count for their opposition as well.
But rather than lamenting Liverpool's exit, let us revel in the incredible achievement of Fulham. Because we may not see the like on these shores again. This is only a little club, and for them to be rubbing shoulders with some of Europe's more renowned teams is the great underdog story of the season. After a campaign that has lasted as long as a league season, we are watching Fulham's finest hour. Savour the moment.
Fulham's fanzine is called 'One F in Fulham'. Well not this year. Now we can add the phrase 'finalists'. Fulham - Europa League Finalists. Fulham - Europa League Winners? They go into the match expected to lose. But then Fulham are making a habit of confounding expectations over the past nine months.
Don't forget to download 'The Greatest Events in Sporting History' Available at http://sportsevents.libsyn.com/