DAVID SMITH - Thursday, April 22, 2010
Clint Dempsey played most of the second half from the bench for Fulham as they fought to a scoreless draw in the first leg of their Europa League semifinal in Hamburg's Nordbank Arena.
Having missed the team's previous three games due to a thigh injury, the American passed a late fitness test to earn a place on Roy Hodgson's bench, signaling a likely appearance later in the game.
Likewise, the hosts were given a boost prior to the game as influential starting forward Mladen Petric was also an unexpected inclusion on the bench for embattled coach Bruno Labbadia after recovering more quickly than expected from a groin problem.
Hamburg wasted no time to bring the crowd to life with Dutch superstar Ruud van Nistelrooy taking a pass from the midfield and slipping free from a pair of Fulham defenders to work his way dangerously to the touchline before being barely beaten to the ball by Fulham keeper Mark Schwarzer in the opening minute.
Piotr Trochowski kept the pressure up, launching a cracker of a shot from distance barely one minute later that missed just wide right and flew into the side netting.
While having their chances in the early going limited largely to counter-attack situations, Fulham caused the host a handful of nervous moments.
An overhead cross into the six-yard box by Chris Baird rolled just behind England World Cup hopeful Bobby Zamora's reach in the fifth minute, then a long blast from Zoltan Gera was deflected wide right of Frank Rost's goal nine minutes later.
Hamburg had control for most of the half, however were having a tough time to break down the organized Fulham defense, with Schwarzer again smothering a dangerous chance by beating Dutch international David Jarolim to pass in the area in the 37th minute, then having to do little to save a long shot on the turn by van Nistelrooy just before the halftime whistle.
Dempsey entered at forward for the limping Zamora seven minutes into the second half, and the American quickly showed his usual tenacity in battling Hamburg defenders over nearly every ball in Fulham's attacking end.
Baird was forced into a sloppy tactical foul on Jonathan Pitroipa in the 55th minute, drawing a yellow for his efforts that will keep him from playing the return leg in London.
A Hamburg turnover on the hour mark led to a golden opportunity on the break for the Cottagers, with Gera's cross towards the in-position Dempsey knocked clear by Joris Mathijsen.
The Cottagers were then left wanting four minutes later on their best chance of the half, when Dempsey's short pass to the onrushing Gera just to the left of goal was barely scuppered by Ze Roberto, who was perhaps lucky to have not conceded a penalty in the tangle of feet with the Hungarian international.
Stunned by the sudden prospect of angering the home crowd of more than 50,000, the hosts got a hold on matters and looked poised to nail the winner with a series of near-misses just after the 70th minute.
Pitroipa first surprised the Fulham defense with a tight shot from near the right touchline that was deflected out by Schwarzer in the 71st minute, then another long blast from Trochowski one minute later headed for the upper right corner was barely pushed clear by the Australian keeper, who then again kept his team in the running with another timely save of a Jarolim shot to nearly the same spot moments after.
Dempsey made one last attempt for a cheeky goal with a lob on the turn from near the penalty spot towards the upper right corner that flew far wide with four minutes remaining, then Schwarzer again kept Fulham out of danger by grabbing a short pass by Petric right near the foot of van Nistelrooy three minutes later.
With the final moments ticking away towards the inevitable goalless draw, the Hamburgers were dealt a blow when Trochowski pulled Gera down on a potentially-dangerous breakaway, drawing a yellow that will force him to watch the all-important return leg as a spectator.
The result sends Fulham back to the Cottage for next Thursday's return leg in decent position to reach the final with an outright win. Another scoreless result in regular time will force overtime, while a scored draw would favor the Germans to reach the final in their home stadium.
In the meantime, Dempsey and his teammates face a tough trip to Everton on Sunday afternoon.