Fulham crashed out of the Europa League in spectacular fashion tonight, conceding a last-second goal to OB Odense’s aptly-named Djiby Fall. The goal, on the final kick of the game, left Craven Cottage stunned, and rightly so: it was an utter collapse that saw the Londoners throw away a two-goal halftime lead. With Wisla Krakow downing Twente in Poland 2-1, the Premier League side was out with their 2-2 draw, and the recriminations will now begin.
Fulham were not the only ones to be burned on the penultimate night of group stage play: Paris Saint-Germain won against Athletic Bilbao 4-2, but saw Red Bull Salzburg come back from a two-goal deficit to beat Slovan Bratislava to nick their place in the round of 32. And Dynamo Kiev had two men sent off in a game they had to win big, slumping to a 3-3 draw against Maccabi Tel-Aviv.
In all, five teams went through tonight and the final four slots are up for grabs tomorrow night with Celtic, Tottenham, Birmingham and Jozy Altidore’s AZ Alkmaar all hoping to make the grade.
Whatever Martin Jol told his players at halftime should be preserved for posterity: it has to stand as the least motivational speech ever crafted. Before the break, Fulham were cruising, getting goals from American Clint Dempsey and Swiss teen Karim Frei, to lead 2-0. The Cottagers were shelling Odense keeper Stefan Wessels with two attempts cleared off the line and several others sailing close. Even the fact that Fulham couldn’t start first-choice keeper Mark Schwarzer, due to a serious neck injury, instead having to blood debutant Neil Etheridge, didn’t dampen what seemed to be a coast into the next round.
And then the second half kicked off. With the whistle, the energy quickly dissipated from the English side. When Hans Henrik Andreasen belted a free kick around the wall and into the lower corner, Fulham became downright nervous. And then, with the game nearly won and literally no time left on the clock, Fall headed the winner for Odense, leaving Etheridge on the ground in disbelief.
In Poland, where Wisla had seen out a comfortable 2-1 win, their despair turned to elation. In London, Moussa Dembele sat on the pitch, unable to comprehend what had just happened. What happened was this: Fulham’s bad season, filled with tales of locker room angst and a manager who is openly feuding with some of his stars, just got a lot worse.
Across the English Channel…
The same could be said in Paris, as a missed penalty kick by Nene could not stop PSG, who grounded out an enthralling 4-2 win over already qualified Athletic. Despite the fact that Red Bull Salzburg spotted Slovan two goals, both scored by Milos Lacny inside the first six minutes, the Austrians would comfortably recover to see the match out. The winner was a gift from Marian Had, the normally serene Slovan center back who just got caught between purposes.
The wealthy Parisians will rue their luck — they collected ten points after all, yet it was not enough — but the fact is that their rebuilding project has just begun. One wonders if the lack of European football will take some of the allure away for David Beckham, widely tipped to join the club in January. Of course, PSG has all that cash to offer, so probably not.
Elsewhere, Lazio got a comfortable 2-0 win over qualified Sporting, to ease into the knockout phase. Goals from young Libor Kozak and the considerably more seasoned Giuseppi Sculli made passage easy for the Roma based club. The group match saw Vaslui crash out at Zurich by the same score line. Besiktas booked their berth and took top of the group by thrashing ten-man Stoke City 3-1, after Matthew Upson was sent off in a testy fixture in Turkey. And two from Stefan Nikolic led Steaua Bucharest past tiny AEK Larnaka 3-1 and into the next stage to boot.
In a game between two qualified sides, Sasha Kljestan scored a fine goal to lead Anderlecht comfortably past Lokomotiv Moscow, 5-3. Dynamo Kiev had two sent off in a 3-3 draw with Maccabi Tel Aviv, to scotch the Ukranians’ hopes, while Schalke punctuated their unbeaten group run with a 3-0 pounding of Maccabi Haifa. Last and least, Sturm Graz lost at home to AEK Athens 3-1 in a game between eliminated sides.
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