With the second leg of our Europa League tie against Amkar Perm coming up tomorrow afternoon, our thoughts have began to turn to what sort of side Roy Hodgson will put out in Russia. The debate on whether our European campaign will prove a help or a hindrance rumbles on and many Fulham fans cite the examples of Aston Villa and Tottenham suggesting that the Whites should seriously consider whether a lengthy European run (or just reaching the group stages of the revcamped competition) would jeopardise our Premier League position.
There has been talk about Roy rotating his squad for this game, but I sincerely hope he resists the temptation. For one thing, Perm proved in the first game – before they displayed a darker side to their character – that they can play. Pitching in the benchwarmers, reserves and a few youngsters in what will surely be a volatile atmosphere could see us stumble out on Thursday. There could be a case for resting one or two tired players (Clint Dempsey being the obvious choice) but any more than that would be asking for trouble.
The perverse nature of the argument that says Europe is a distraction has bothered me since some started bleating about the extra volume of games we would play. If we were solely to ‘concentrate on the league’ (in the glib manner that top flight managers insist they will be doing when they’ve tumbled out of the Cup at the first hurdle to lower-league opponents – something we aren’t exactly unfamiliar with ourselves), what would be our goal? Surely, simply avoiding relegation wouldn’t be enough, would it? We’d be trying to finish as high up the table as possible opening up the possibility of – yes, you’ve guessed it – making Europe again.
Our European experience – the rest time we’ve been able to enter a competition such as this on merit through our league position – is a valuable source of experience for the players who haven’t previously tested themselves at this level. It’s a bonus for our fans as well – the prospect of maybe Valencia or Roma coming to the Cottage is mouthwatering. It might also put Fulham on the map in corners of Europe where we aren’t a household name and undoubtedly makes us a more attractive proposition for potential new arrivals.
The proximity of the second leg to our trip to Aston Villa on Sunday has some fans wondering whether Roy will contemplate resting some players with the trip to Birmingham in mind. History, though, suggests that we are unlikely to get a result at Villa Park regardless of the side we field. We have never won there since our return to the top flight and you have to go back to our famous FA Cup win sealed by Simon Morgan and Steve Hayward for the last time we left with a winning smile on our faces.
Furthermore, even if we were to slip to defeat at Villa, we wouldn’t be any worse off than we were last year. Last season we drew all three of the respective fixtures and, with a win at Portsmouth on the opening day, we already have those three points in the bag. Europe certainly won’t come around every season and we’d be fooling ourselves if we thought we could fully committ to making it as far possible when we are more ‘ready for it’. As Fulham fans, we should know football simply doesn’t work like that.
Of course, playing a strong side doesn’t guarantee that we’ll be in the hat for the group stages. There’s still an away goal and that plastic pitch to contend with. But we should be good enough to score in Russia and that might prove good enough to send us through.