European fever is infectious. Plenty of people have been booking their flights out to Basel, Rome and Sofia, while others have been predicting just how we might get on in the group itself. Fulham in Europe is still a rare thing – even though a fair few media outlets have been suggesting that this is our first continental campaign – and you’ve got to think that the six European nights that will soon be upon us, starting in Sofia in September, will be very memorable indeed.
Timmy and a couple of others have already looked at the UEFA coefficients, which is probably the best way of predicting what might happen, and concluding that getting out of the group stage is going to be a tall order. The bookies don’t quite agree with the UEFA rankings – with William Hill making us second favourites (behind the Italians) to win the group. Let’s have a closer look at our companions in Group E.
Undoubtedly the toughest test of our European credentials, Roma themselves are at a bit of a crossroads. There are still serious questions over their financial situation – largely because of the debts of the Sensi family – and most of their squad are up for sale. Only Francesco Totti, the club captain and the side’s ageing talisman, and Daniele De Rossi, the man who brutally elbowed Brian McBride at the World Cup three years ago, are exempt from the transfer list. Luciano Spalletti remains in charge and will probably look to shape an attacking trio behind Totti of French midfielder Jeremy Menez and Stefano Guberti, a winger signed from Bari in the summer, and Brazilian Rodrigo Taddei. Fulham will certainly be happy if the dangerous Mirko Vucinic, whose future remains unresolved, doesn’t partner Totti.
Interestingly, there is a historical link between the Whites and Roma. Alec Stock, who took Fulham all the way to Wembley in the FA Cup in 1975, had a brief spell as Roma manager, where he was unhappily hindered by the always chaotic boardroom politics of Italian football. Of course, Vincenzo Montella, who had a memorable if fleeting loan spell at Fulham, spent ten years at Roma, scoring 94 league goals. Having retired in the summer, ‘the Little Aeroplane’ is now the assistant coach of Roma’s youth team.
The Swiss side, who are the only team from their nation to have ever reached the quarter finals of the Champions’ League, reacted quickly after the disappointment of last season. Former Tottenham manager Christian Gross was sacked after Basle could only finish third in the table and his replacement was Thorsten Fink, who has been thrust into the hotseat after being in charge at German Second Division outfit Ingolstadt. Fink showed a number of experienced faces the door and has gone for a blend of youth and experience, the latter best demonstrated by the return of Switzerland’s record goalscorer, Alex Frei, from Dortmund.
Basel are captained by Argentinian keeper Franco Costanzo and they have been operating an interesting 4-1-3-2 system in pre-season. Benjamin Huggel is the anchor man between defence and the midfield and the former Portugal under-21 international Carlitos will offer much of the flair and creativity from the left flank. In the early league table, Basel sit sixth having won just two of their opening seven games. Marco Streller, Frei’s strike partner, leads the scoring chart with three goals.
CSKA Sofia have some European pedigree. They have reached continental semi-finals on three ocassions, making them Bulgaria’s most successful club in Europe, although their success has diminished since the fall of communism in 1989. Despite winning the Bulgarian title last year, they were denied entry to the Champions’ League due to outstanding debts. CSKA Sofia were impressive in overcoming Dynamo Moscow to reach this stage and will certainly be difficult to beat.
Luboslav Penev, a big name in Bulgarian football whose goals helped Atlético Madrid do the double in 1995-96, showed real character to continue his career after being diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1994. Penev succeeded his uncle Dimitar as Sofia manager in February and has lost just three of his 21 games in charge so far. His team is built around a sturdy spine with Yordan Todorov at centre back and Todor Yanchev in central midfield. The creativity will come from Brazilian playmaker Marquinhos and dangerous Portuguese striker Rui Miguel, who has hit the ground running since signing for Sofia in January, will need to be watched.
I hope that’s managed to whet your appetite for our European campaign.