This feature is a part of Improbable Triumphs
The home advantage is something that is so often spoken about in football. Clubs across the world, no matter what level they play at, look to make their stadium a fortress. While it is important to do well at home, at times it can feel as though the importance of home form is slightly overstated.
Although there are obvious benefits of playing in your own stadium, such as having the fans on your side, it can be hard to tell how far the margins sway based on where the game is being played. One place and time that perfectly captured the value of home advantage was Fulham’s Craven Cottage during the 2009/10 Europa League season.
It was the first ever Europa League campaign – after the name had been changed from the UEFA Cup – and Fulham were indomitable at home. They had beaten Lithuanian side Vėtra and Amkar Perm of Russia in the qualifying rounds to progress to the group stages. They then beat both CSKA Sofia and Basel, as well as earning a draw against Roma in their home games, which were integral in earning a place in the knockout rounds. That was followed by victory over Shakhtar Donetsk in the last 32.
Their away form had not been bad either. They had suffered defeats in Russia and Rome and drawn in Sofia and Donetsk, but won the rest of their matches. But it was their home form that was setting them apart from the pack. When the draw for the round of 16 confirmed Fulham would be up against Juventus, they knew they needed to make the most of the home tie, which was to be played during the second leg.
It must be said that this wasn’t necessarily a vintage Juventus side, although their squad still included the likes of Fabio Cannavaro, Fabio Grosso, Mauro Camoranesi, Alessandro Del Piero and David Trezeguet (Gianluigi Buffon didn’t play for them in the Europa League that campaign). They were certainly no slouches.
However, even with their home record, the Cottagers must have been doubtful of whether they could pull off a comeback after the first leg. Nicola Legrottaglie had opened the scoring in the ninth minute, with Jonathan Zebina adding a second before the half-hour mark. Dickson Etuhu’s deflected effort had put Fulham back into the tie and offered them a vital away goal, though the required comeback became steep when Hasan Salihamidžić glanced the ball in during first-half injury time to make it 3-1.
Roy Hodgson would have told his Fulham players to make sure they got off to a good start in the second leg, but it couldn’t have begun much worse. After Diego had fought for the ball in the box, it popped up to Trezeguet who fired it into the bottom corner just two minutes in. Fulham had already lost their away goal advantage and were now in need of four goals to go through without extra time.
They hit back quickly, though. Paul Konchesky sent a ball into the box that Bobby Zamora chested down and volleyed home in the ninth minute, restoring hope and getting the deficit back down to two goals. Hope turned into belief just before the half-hour mark as Cannavaro was given a straight red card for tripping Zoltán Gera when the Hungarian was running through on goal.
It was Gera who scored Fulham’s second goal of the leg in the 39th minute. Zamora played a clever flick to Simon Davies, who got to the ball just before it went out and fired a low pass across the face of goal. Gera was on hand to finish the move off, sending the ball into the roof of the net from inside the six-yard box. Half time came with the aggregate score at 4-3 to Juventus. Despite being behind, there was a palpable feeling among supporters in the Cottage that Fulham were going to get back into the game.
Those feelings were far from wrong as it only took Fulham three second-half minutes to get the tie back on level terms. Damien Duff had played a ball that was destined for the back post but was blocked by Diego’s outstretched arm. The referee gave a penalty and Gera emphatically hit the spot kick into the top corner, sending goalkeeper Antonio Chimenti the wrong way.
Chasing the goal that would send them through to the quarter-finals, Hodgson brought on Clint Dempsey for Stephen Kelly in the 70th minute. This would prove to be a masterstroke just 12 minutes later. Dempsey received the ball from Etuhu just outside the box with his back to goal. With Zdeněk Grygera and Zebina ushering him away from goal, it seemed he had nowhere to go. The sense of security couldn’t have been falser, though, as the American international sent an exquisitely dinked shot into the far corner.
Craven Cottage erupted as Chimenti turned around in horror, just in time to see the ball hit the back of his net. Supporters went mad as Dempsey ran in celebration and gestured towards the badge on his chest. He had been brought on to do a job and that was exactly what he achieved – and it’s fair to say there’s probably very few who expected him to do it in such style.
Del Piero was brought on in the dying moments to try to force something for Juve, but the move was futile. Frustrations grew quickly for the Italian giants as the limited time they had to get themselves back into the game dwindled away. It was too much for Zebina, who was given a straight red card in the 91st minute for kicking out at Duff.
The final whistle signalled the culmination of one of Fulham’s greatest ever triumphs. It wasn’t the end of their Europa League run, though. They beat Wolfsburg 3-1 on aggregate in the quarter-final, before navigating their way past Hamburg in the semis thanks to a 2-1 home win. All this set up an encounter against Atlético Madrid for the final, though Fulham fell just short, losing 2-1 after extra time at the hands of a Diego Forlán brace.
Fulham have made the Europa League just once since then – in 2011/12 – though they were unable to get through a group containing Twente, Odense Boldklub and Wisła Kraków. That their triumphs on the European stage in 2009/10 have come in such an isolated incident make them all the more glorious. Though it was not the last victory of that campaign, the one against Juventus is the greatest and most memorable of them all.
By Danny Lewis @DannyLewis95