Europa League – Forlan breaks Fulham hearts
In a tight game at the HSH Nordbank Arena, Forlan’s flicked finish took a deflection off Brede Hangeland to beat Mark Schwarzer, giving Quique Sanchez Flores’s team their first major silverware since the Spanish double in 1996.
The former Manchester United striker had put Los Rojoblancos ahead just after the half hour, showcasing his poacher’s instinct to poke Sergio Aguero’s mis-hit shot into the bottom left, before Simon Davies levelled with a smart volley five minutes later.
Whether Forlan’s first goal was onside was touch-and-go, while Schwarzer possibly would have saved the second but for Hangeland’s intervention.
They were unlucky breaks for a Fulham side who were at times mesmerised by Atletico’s passing but had spells of dominance against their illustrious Spanish conquerors.
Fulham had not reached a major final since losing the FA Cup in 1975, and at first the nerves were clear to see, as Atletico passed rings around them with Forlan hitting the post when he should have scored on 12 minutes.
Roy Hodgson’s side kept their shape though and they worked their way back into the match as Davies forced a smart stop from David De Gea in the Atleti goal.
But on 32 minutes the Spaniards were ahead, when Aguero was found on the left by Juan Antonio Reyes before hitting a dreadful shot that Forlan – who was possibly offside – gobbled up with the Whites defence flat-footed,
Fulham regrouped and pressed on Atletico and they were soon level after a move initiated by some wonderful skill from Bobby Zamora.
Struggling with an Achilles injury he started nonetheless, and the risk seemed to pay off when – following a superb turn and shimmy inside the box by the striker – team-mate Zoltan Gera was able to put in a cross that Davies smashed in at the far post.
Atletico desperately tried to edge ahead before half-time, winning what seemed an endless stream of corners, but save a low stop from Schwarzer on Forlan, Fulham comfortably held out to the break.
Hodgson, recently chosen as League Manager’s Association Manager of the Year by his peers but a beaten finalist in the same competition with Internazionale in 1997, seemed to inspire his troops at half-time as they came out for the second period in fine fettle.
Gera almost raced clean through but a slightly heavy touch allowed De Gea to claim at his feet and the 19-year-old, who has been called up for Spain’s provisional World Cup squad after his surprise ascendance from third-choice this season, followed with a superb stop to deny Davies’s half-volley on the hour mark.
As the second half progressed both sides became more cautious as they sought to avoid conceding, with Atletico appearing to lack confidence as legs drew heavy.
Fulham, however, were not helped by the exit of Zamora, clearly in pain throughout, with replacements Clint Dempsey and Erik Nevland battling gamely but lacking the guile to truly trouble Luis Perea and Alvaro Dominguez.
The match went into extra-time and Fulham started it with vigour, Davies unable to find Gera with the Whites outnumbering Atletico, while Nevland snatched at a shot wide after taking the ball on his chest and getting goal-side of Perea.
As penalties beckoned though, Atletico seemed to find an extra gear as Fulham entered defensive mode and looked for the break
Schwarzer batted out Forlan’s drive after an incessant push from his team-mates, while Aguero somehow put the ball into the side netting after his strike partner turned Chris Baird inside out before drilling a vicious low ball across goal.
But on 116 minutes, with both sides apparently content for the lottery of the shoot-out, Aguero chased what seemed a lost cause on the left, beating Aaron Hughes on the byline before cutting back a sharp low centre that Forlan flicked off the inside of Hangeland’s leg to leave Schwarzer wrong-footed and provoke wild scenes of celebration.
Fulham threw the obligatory kitchen sink at Atletico in the dying minutes but they were out of puff and inspiration as the Spanish capital’s second side ensured European silverware for the first time since their 1962 Cup Winners’ Cup victory.
Reda Maher / Eurosport