Advantage Fulham and Atletico

English teams completed long, grueling journeys to arrive at their Europa League semifinal matches and it showed. Liverpool hardly created scoring chances in Madrid and will have to fight hard to overturn Atletico’s narrow advantage. Fulham fared better, managing to prevent Hamburg from taking a comfortable advantage into the second leg, but the pressure will be on the West London club not to concede a goal at home that could prove lethal to their magical European journey.

Hamburg SV – Fulham 0-0

Hamburg started the game with conviction and immediately set off to sink further the visitors depleted energy, but Fulham sustained the pressure well not only in the first fifteen minutes but throughout the match and did enough offensively to keep Hamburg honest. When Fulham’s defense was permeated, Schwartzer rose to the occasion. The Australian goal-keeper was excellent, poised and alert all night. For much of the game Fulham did nothing special but grew in confidence as the match went on, breaking out of the back dangerously. Zoltan Gera, Konchesky, Damian Duff and Clint Dempsey were sparkling in the second half.

It was Hamburg that looked less cohesive in the last quarter of an hour. At the end of the match Bruno Labbadia had the look of perplexity, seemingly realizing how Fulham had gotten past adversaries like Shaktar, Juventus and Wolfsburg. The English side is an uncomfortable opponent and will be particularly difficult to overcome at home, where it will be lifted by its passionate supporters.

Ruud van Nistelrooy will try to end Fulham's great run in Europe next week.

Ruud van Nistelrooy will try to end Fulham's magical run in Europe next week.

For Hamburg, the path to a dream final (the Europa League championship match will be played in Hamburg this year, coincidentally) has become a very tough mission. The Germans surely have the players to get there, but Hamburg will have to produce a great performance to succeed at Craven Cottage, where all others have failed in this competition. For Fulham, the dream continues. Roy Hodgson will have his players primed and focused on a return trip to Hamburg.

Atletico Madrid – Liverpool 1-0

If there is one team to love in Spain just for the fans, it is Atletico Madrid. The greatest show of the night took place at the Vicente Calderon stadium courtesy of the sensational Colchonerros supporters, who carried their team from start to finish. The intense devotion comes despite the tormenting season they have had to endure, with Atletico in disarray at the end of 2009 before improving in 2010. Atletico’s public put on a performance even Liverpool fans could tip their hats to.

On the pitch, a scrappy game was decided by a scrappy goal. Diego Forlan lost his marker Kyriakos and initially made a mess of a perfect Jurado cross, but fortunately for him the ball bounced near and he steered it past Pepe Reina, just outside the stretched Jamie Carragher. Atletico went on to protect their narrow lead, prudently looking for a second, but careful not to concede a goal.

Diego Forlan and Atletico Madrid take a narrow lead into Anfield.

Diego Forlan and Atletico Madrid take a narrow lead into Anfield.

For Liverpool, the absence of Fernando Torres and, surely, their long journey to Madrid on three different trains and a short plane ride weighed heavily. Rafa Benitez started with his best available formation and David Ngog in the place of Torres. Ten minutes after Forlan’s goal Liverpool apparently evened the score through Yossi Benayoun, but the Israeli international was incorrectly ruled off-side in what was a very close call. From then on, each team labored through the rest of the match and each had a couple of chances, while the vociferous Atletico supporters energized the encounter.

It will be an electric second leg at Anfield. Liverpool are tremendous at home, as demonstrated in last round’s demolition of Benfica. But Atletico will have Kun Aguero back from suspension and if they can score one, Liverpool will need three to advance. Rafa is confident and his players will be ready. What will be going through Fernando Torres’ mind watching the club he grew up with and the club he now calls home battling for the final next Thursday?