As part of our build up to Fulham’s crunch Europa League clash with FC Basel on Wednesday, we asked Gavin Green, an English journalist living in Switzerland, to give us the lowdown on our opponents.
Basel have just as much riding on Wednesday night’s game as Fulham. Like the London side, failure will see them go out of the Europa League at the group stage – something that didn’t look very likely after they shocked Roma in their opening game. Much of the discussion in the build to the game this week has centred around two men: Thorsten Fink and Roy Hodgson.
Fink was something of an unknown quantity when he was plucked from left field to succeed the former Tottenham manager Christian Gross at St. Jakob-Park. The former German international, a Champions’ League winner with Bayern Munich in 2001, has also tasted defeat in two major matches against English sides. He was a late substitute when Manchester United staged their late comeback to beat Bayern in the 1999 Champions’ League final and part of the Bayern side that lost the 2002 Super Cup against Liverpool.
Fink focussed on coaching almost as soon as he was forced to retire from football having damaged cartilage in his knee. Having already graduated from the Cologne Sport University with a coaching diploma, Fink coached the Red Bull Salzburg amateur side before being apppointed assistant manager. He left to take over at German minnows FC Ingolstadt 04 and, despite being sacked in April, was named as Basel’s new manager in June. He wasn’t avoid to make changes, refusing to renew the contracts of several players including Ronny Hodel and Eduardo, and selling star striker Eren Derdiyok to Bayer Leverkusen.
At the halfway stage – the Swiss league is currently enjoying a winter break – Basel sit second in the table, although they are some seven points off pacesetters Young Boys. Basel have lost just once at home so far this season (a 2-1 reverse against the league leaders) and their only other dropped points came in a 1-1 draw with lowly Zurich. Fink’s side are certainly adventurous. They are the second top scorers in the league, with Swiss legend Alex Frei having bagged nine goals, two behind his strike partner Marco Streller.
Basel are much more comfortable at home, although they considered themselves unfortunate to get something out of the trip to Craven Cottage. They were certainly quicker out of the blocks than Fulham – and might have made things more difficult for Hodgson’s side had Streller and Frei taken a couple of early chances. Aussie Scott Chipperfield, a veteran of the Basel side that reached the second group stage of the Champions’ League in 2002-03, came close with a late effort.
The reason for the focus on Fink over the past few days has been speculation about how Basel will play. They need to better Roma’s result in Sofia to secure top spot, but a draw would be enough to see them through at Fulham’s expense. The word on the street is that Fink will be cautious, wary of throwing too many bodies forward and gifting the English side opportunities. That doesn’t sound too much like the man who has encouraged his team to go in search of goals in the league, but we’ll see.
Hodgson is still revered in this part of the world for taking Switzerland to two two successive major finals. They reached the 1994 World Cup with surprising ease as Hodgson navigated them through a qualifying group that included Italy and Portugal, losing just one game. It was the first time Switzerland had reached a major finals since 1966. He wasn’t finished there. The Swiss reached the last sixteen, going out to Spain, before galloping to qualification for Euro ’96. Though Hodgson has said that his knowledge of Swiss football, gained during spells at Neuchatel and Grasshoppers as well as his time in charge of the national team, counts for little as it came more than a decade ago, many observers feel the canny English coach could spring a surprise and take Fulham through at Basel’s expense. If he is to do so, quietening St. Jakob-Park will be high on his game plan. Given what Hodgson’s achieved at Fulham, I wouldn’t put it past him.