Shakhtar Donetsk v Fulham, Europa League, February 25, 2010
“They’re the holders, so it’s always going to be tough. We can’t sit back otherwise we’re going to create a lot of problems for ourselves. We’ll be looking to score â€“ we always do when we’re away. Hopefully we can progress.” – Chris Biard.
Fulham stand on the brink of a remarkable achievement as the west Londoners head to the Ukraine, 2-1 up from the first leg, to take on last season’s UEFA Cup holders Shakhtar. The Cottagers earned their slender advantage courtesy of goals from Zoltan Gera and Bobby Zamora, and provided the visitors avoid defeat in Donetsk they will defy the odds to reach the last 16 where they’ll meet either Juventus or Ajax.
Fulham will have been encouraged by the shaky performance of Shakhtar’s defence from the first leg. In particular, goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov had several nervy moments as he allowed Zoltan Geraâ€™s early shot to creep into his net, and that goal could yet prove to be a costly mistake in the grand scheme of the tie. Further question marks were levelled at Shakhtar’s experienced backline, including the likes of Croatian international Darjio Srna and Romanian international Razvan Rat, as the Fulham forward line conjured up numerous efforts on goal throughout the contest.
Arguably however, the appraisal of Shakhtar’s defensive insecurities was magnified by the brilliance of their attacking play at the other end of the pitch. (9/4 to be over 3.5 goals.)
As was the case during their triumphant 2008/09 season, Shakhtar’s midfield and attack continues to be saturated with high-quality, young Brazilian imports, that most clubs in world football would crave to have on their books. And their quality was in full evidence last week as the likes of Willian, Ilsinho, Fernandinho, Luiz Adriano and Jadsen all showed off talents at Craven Cottage.
Shakhtar’s stockpile of brilliant Brazilians doesn’t stop there however. A former target of Manchester United, Shakhtar won the race in the summer to sign the much-hyped Douglas Costa – dubbed the “new Ronaldinho” – for a reported fee of â‚¬12 million. And even more quality came through the door of at the end of 2009 as the club splurged another â‚¬6 million on snapping up the wonderful Alex Teixeira from Vasco da Gama after the forward was one of the stars of the show at the Under-20 World Cup last year in Egypt.
With so many Brazilians to pick from, it seems difficult to believe that Fulham will keep a clean sheet in Donetsk. (Fulham are 6/1 to keep a clean sheet.) But the Premier Leaguers will be far from pessimistic, as they will also feel confident that they can score goals at the other end. (Shakthar are 21/20 to keep a clean sheet, 5/6 against.)
One of the most obvious features of the match last week was the way in which Shakhtar dropped their pace after the break. With the Ukrainian league still on it’s mid-season break, Mircea Lucescu’s team struggled to find the form and tempo which brought them Luiz Adriano’s equaliser at the end of the opening 45. Fulham were able to cash in on their opponents lack of match fitness as Bobby Zamora smashed home a brilliant second and they could have had more goals as gaps began opening up as they game became more stretched. (Draw/Fulham is 17/1.)
Only once in this season’s Europa League, in the defeat to Russian outfit Amkar Perm back in August, have Fulham failed to score away from home. Credit for that has to be given to Roy Hodgson’s fluent 4-4-1-1 away formation, in which Zamora is the main target striker, Gera is able in float around in the hole behind him, while Damien Duff and Danny Murphy offer that extra bit of guile and class to help support their side’s attacking efforts.
Balancing out their forward-thinking players, Dickson Etuhu plays a crucial role as the midfield enforcer protecting the back-four. And with Brede Hangeland and Aaron Hughes playing in front of experienced keeper Mark Schwarzer, Fulham have a solid defensive unit on which they can rely.
Any kind of draw at the Donbass Arena will be enough to see the west London side go through, although playing for a stalemate is always a dangerous game. Rather, the Cottagers may decide that attack is their best form of defence, and should they net a crucial away goal then maybe, just maybe, Fulham can start to have dreams of reaching the final in Hamburg.
101gg predicts: Shakhtar Donetsk 3 – Fulham 1 (14/1)
Full match odds here.