Fulham travelled to Croatia for the UEFA Europa League Third Qualifying Round First Leg, taking on RNK Split on a warm evening in Dugopolje. But any hopes of an easy ride were quickly dashed by a well-organised, technically gifted opposition.
Following the 4-0 drubbing of Crusaders a week earlier, Martin Jol made two changes to his team, Chris Baird returning at right-back at the expense of Philippe Senderos, whilst Dickson Etuhu stepped into the centre of midfield in place of Steve Sidwell. Three summer signings, Csaba Somogyi, Marcel Gecov and Pajtim Kasami were all named on the bench for the first time since joining the Club.
After making short work of their two previous ties against NSI Runavik and Crusaders, the Whites were faced with a sterner test on this occasion, and RNK Split wasted no time in proving it, threatening twice in the opening five minutes.
First Ante Erceg tried his luck with a half-chance snap shot from outside the box that rolled wide. But he had more time for his second attempt after a through-ball over the top, and would have been disappointed to not trouble Mark Schwarzer, pushing the ball wide of the left post.
The home side were enjoying the lion’s share of possession, and as Fulham fought for a foothold in the game, Dickson Etuhu was booked for a late sliding tackle on 20 minutes. And from the resulting free-kick from deep, Schwarzer had to be alert as Golubovic tried to flick Vitaic’s set piece over the ‘keeper’s head from close range.
It was almost half an hour before Fulham registered a first shot on target. Zamora received the ball on the edge of the area with his back to goal, but managed to turn two defenders and roll a low curling shot at the bottom corner. But it lacked power and didn’t overly trouble Vuckovic.
But the home side remained a threat and on 36 minutes Ivan Baraban had the home fans on their feet with a dipping half-volley from outside the box that had Schwarzer beaten, but was just too high to fall under the bar.
Moments later though came Fulham’s best chance of the half. Andrew Johnson’s persistence down the right resulted in him getting to the ball before Krizanac and, virtually on the by-line, he swivelled a shot towards the near top corner. However, Vuckovic was on his toes to desperately tip the ball over for a corner. The scores remained goalless at the break, however.
It was much the same story as the second-half began. The home side retaining possession well and forcing Fulham to work hard. Still, the endeavour was there and moments into the second period Zamora played Johnson through to the right of goal. Again the striker took the ball to the by-line before cutting it back to Briggs on the edge of the six-yard box. But Krizanac was on-hand to make a timely block tackle.
As the half progressed, both sides began resorting to long shots as a means of circumnavigating the respective well organised defences. Erceg and Vitaic both called Schwarzer into action, whilst at the other end Zamora’s effort rose over.
RNK Split had certainly proved themselves to be strong opponents and on 72 minutes again threatened to break the deadlock. Substitute Duje Cop was the end recipient after a sustained period of offensive possession and he did well to turn Hughes on the right edge of the six-yard box and fire a shot which Schwarzer had to get all of his body behind to keep out.
With 10 minutes remaining Martin Jol introduced Pajtim Kasami for his Fulham debut, but there was no fairytale start for the Swiss midfielder as, instead, it was Split who continued to threaten in the dying minutes.
Cop saw a glancing header fly wide from a corner from the right, before, moments later, the substitute coolly turned Chris Baird on the left edge of the box, creating the space to drill a shot, which Schwarzer gladly scooped up.
It was the last meaningful chance of a tight match which ended 0-0. Not the win many Fulham fans expected, but a good result against strong opponents, with the home leg to follow in a week’s time.