Having overcome the well-organised NSI Runavik a week earlier, the Second Qualifying Round of Fulham’s second UEFA Europa League campaign took the Whites to Belfast to face Crusaders.
A week after being held to a 0-0 draw in a slightly low tempo First Round Second Leg in the Faroe Islands, Martin Jol again named a strong team as he demonstrated his intent to make a First Leg impression. The only slight surprise was the inclusion from the start of Kerim Frei, the 17-year-old Swiss talent who had only made his senior debut as a substitute seven days earlier.
In the build-up to the match, Northern Ireland international captain Aaron Hughes had predicted a tough test from the home side whom he said would be highly charged for a fixture against English Premier League opposition. And so it proved as, buoyed by the strong local support and sense of occasion, Crusaders looked committed to giving the Whites a real run for their money from the word go.
Indeed, it was 11 minutes before the Whites managed to fashion a first attempt on goal. A ball over the top, down the right flank, was brought under control by Zamora who teed up Damien Duff. The winger’s drive from the edge of the box stung the hands of Sean O’Neil as he palmed it away.
Chances were at a premium at both ends in a tentative first period, as both sides eased into the game. It was almost 20 minutes before either keeper was called into action again, and this time it was debutant Frei who tested O’Neil. Picking the ball up on the left flank, some smart footwork gave the teenager space to shoot. His low drive was on target, but the home keeper got down well to his right to keep the scores at 0-0.
Fulham gradually began to put the home defence under more pressure, and on the half hour they were unlucky not to take the lead. Johnson cut in from the right and played a low cross to the feet of Duff. The winger took a touch to get the ball out of his feet, before poking a shot at goal, but McBride did extremely well to make a timely block.
The Whites required patience in their hunt for a goal, but eventually their endeavours paid off. With a free-kick from deep, Chris Baird found the head of Brede Hangeland. His effort was blocked out for a corner, but the home side failed to defend it effectively. After attempts from first Etuhu and then Zamora were scrapped away, the ball fell to Matthew Briggs left of centre on the edge of the box. Without hesitation the young left-back unleashed a rocket with his left foot which swerved away from O’Neil and into the top right hand corner - an emphatic first senior goal for the England under-20 international.
Encouraged by their first-half showing, Crusaders emerged for the second period with renewed confidence, and within minutes they had their first real chance of the night. Adamson outwitted Etuhu on the edge of the box, but his shot lacked accuracy and rolled wide without troubling Mark Schwarzer.
Moments later, Aaron Hughes had to be alert to snatch the ball away from McMaster after more good work from Adamson resulted in a cross from the left and a clear sight at goal for the winger.
At the other end, O’Neil saved from a low Baird drive, but then Crusaders had their moment. The highly rated Owens played in Adamson, whose deft first touch scooped the ball over Hughes’ challenge and set the striker up for an attempt at goal. Stretching out a leg, he managed to poke the ball into the bottom left corner, in off the post, giving Schwarzer no chance.
Fulham looked for a response, and saw a Zamora header saved by O’Neil from a Murphy free-kick from the right, but Crusaders still appeared to have the momentum.
Stuart Dallas made a dashing run down the left flank, and beat both Baird and Hughes as he entered the area. The winger lost his footing, but recovered to poke the ball to Adamson on the penalty spot, but the striker’s powerful shot rebounded back off the crossbar, much to Schwarzer’s relief.
It was a let-off for Fulham, but one they turned into a positive, attacking with renewed vigour subsequently. Purposeful runs from the likes of Duff, Frei and Johnson put the home side on the back foot, and eventually reaped dividends.
On 74 minutes the lead was restored when Damien Duff’s left footed corner from the right found Zamora in the box. The England striker’s header was powerful and well placed, giving O’Neil little chance of getting any meaningful contact behind the ball.
Just a few minutes later it was 3-1. A speculative Johnson shot from the edge of the area was adjudged to have hit the hand of Leeman and referee Turpin pointed to the spot. Up stepped Danny Murphy to calmly slot the ball to O’Neil’s left with customary authority, for his second penalty goal of the competition.
Crusaders refused to let their heads drop however, and as the game entered its final stages, substitute Rainey was unlucky with a distance effort, which dipped just over Schwarzer’s crossbar.
Damien Duff came close for the Whites too, with a low drive that just missed the left post, before he was withdrawn to allow another young prospect a debut as summer arrival from Everton, Tom Donegan, was introduced as a late substitute.
With the home side tiring and Fulham looking content with their advantage, the remaining minutes of the game were played out in a predictable manner. The referee’s whistle sounded after three minutes of added time, bringing to a close a successful first leg for the Whites.