European football returns to Craven Cottage for the first time in seven years tonight and I, like the rest of you, am bursting with excitement. Don’t be fooled, though. This will be no cakewalk for Fulham. Like CSKA Sofia before them, FC Basel will provide a stern test. Underestimate the Swiss side at your peril – they are one of the success stories of modern Swiss football, have a European pedigree that includes frightening the life out of English sides and some very underrated footballers.
Such has been Basel’s development in recent years that Roy Hodgson conceded yesterday that his extensive experience of Swiss football won’t give Fulham a headstart. His meticulous preparation will have identified Basel’s strengths but they emerged as a footballing force only after Hodgson, who had already gained the goodwill of a nation by taking Switzerland to their first World Cup in almost three decades in 1994, had left Grasshoppers ten years ago after the briefest of returns. They have won four titles in six years since ending a 22-year wait for a league crown in 2002 and, although they might lack the fluency of the side of a few years ago, Basel will still be very dangerous opponents tonight.
Fulham will be keen to avoid the fate of several sides from the early years of the new millenium. In a sensation run in the Champions’ League in 2002-03 – when they were the only second Swiss side to reach the competition proper – Basel beat Celtic to reach the group stages, where they drew against Valencia and secured points both home and away against Liverpool. In the second group stage, Basel claimed a creditable point at Old Trafford and beat Juventus 2-1 at home. They narrowly missed out on making the quarter-finals. Who was their goalkeeper during this surprising run? None other than Pascal Zuberbuhler, who could keep goal against them tonight should Mark Schwarzer not be reinstated into Fulham’s European squad list.
Basel are currently managed by former German international Thorsten Fink, who oversaw a radical shuffling of the pack in the summer when he allowed several established players to leave after not renewing their contracts. Fink promoted a few promising youngsters – and brought back national hero Alexander Frei from Borussia Dortmund. In came Turkish stopper Ça?da? Atan from Energie Cottbus, the Ghanaian defender Samuel Inkoom, Massimo Colomba from fierce rivals Grasshopper and Antonio de Silva, a Brazilian on loan from Karlsruher.
There are plenty of players to keep an anxious eye on tonight. Frei has scored goals at every level but many feared his career was over after he suffered a horrible injury during Switzerland’s Euro 2008 campaign. Marco Streller, arguably Frei’s successor as a focal point for the Swiss attack, was one of the main reasons behind Basel’s domestic treble of 2007-08 – a season when they also reached the last 32 of the UEFA Cup – and Portuguese midfielder Carlitos capped a fine performance with the first goal in their shock win over Roma on Matchday One. The evergreen Scott Chipperfield, so impressive in Australia’s shock win over England at Upton Park in 2003, has lost none of his effectiveness over the years (rather like our own Danny Murphy) and will be a particular threat down the left side.
Lydia wrote yesterday that the path to progression probably runs past the Cottage – and rests on Fulham winning our home games. We aren’t helped by the fact that Sunday’s trip to West Ham is pretty important in terms of league campaign, but Hodgson’s got a stronger squad this season that he should be able to juggle to good effect. Dickson Etuhu and Brede Hangeland needed fitness tests to be able to face Arsenal at the weekend and will not be risked tonight by the sounds of things. Hodgson told the offal that he will be making another change ‘give a player a rest’ and ‘see once more what someone can do’. From the wording, I’d guess it is entirely plausible that Clint Dempsey – who has looked tired and been off-target with his shooting this season – could be rested and that might allow Bjorn Helge Riise an opportunity to impress. I would quite like the idea of his pace unsettling the Basel defence.
Although you might expect to see Diomansy Kamara play a greater role in this game than he has for Fulham recently, I’d be tempted to persist with Andy Johnson – shoulder problems permitting – and Bobby Zamora up front. There were signs that the pair were combining well again on Saturday – although not with the same devastating fluency of the night Johnson was crudely stopped by Amkar Perm – and I’ve got a sneaking feeling that a goal’s around the corner for Bobby.
I’ve no idea what sort of attendance we’re likely to get at the Cottage tonight but it’s vital that those of us who are there create an atmosphere befitting the occasion. Home wins are crucial and three points would be the perfect morale boost ahead of another London derby at Upton Park.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Kelly, Hughes, Baird; Greening, Murphy, Riise, Gera; Zamora, A. Johnson. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Anderson, Smalling, Saunders, Dempsey, Kamara, Uwezu.