If I was Roy Hodgson, I’d let everything proceed as normal until five minutes before kick-off this evening. Then, I’d ask for silence. The team would sit in that cramped dressing room awaiting the team talk. Earnestly and yet sternly I’d say something along the lines of: ‘Boys, we did really well just to qualify for the Europa League. The journey started way back last season. Cast your minds back to Vilnius in July and what we’ve had to do to get this way. Think about those fine performances. Remember the hurt. Remember Roma’s late equaliser and the pain of that night in Rome. Put Basel out of your minds. Our European hopes depend on this result tonight. We might have beaten this lot in Sofia, but they got their only point of the group that night. We’ve proven that Fulham can play at this level more than once already. Let’s do it again’.
That wouldn’t be Churchillian rhetoric but the players would get the message. I can’t presume to guess what goes on inside those four walls and just how Hodgson speaks to the team, but I know that he gets his message across pretty effectively. The media have talked down the Europa League as the poor relation of European football, without the glitz and glamour of the Champions’ League. They hasn’t been too much mention of the prospect of Fulham going any further in the competition – many feel that we’ve left ourselves with too much to do. But the fans haven’t given up.
I checked the online ticket map last night to see what was left in terms of seat availability, expecting to see vast collections of empty seats. There were less than 500 tickets unsold. That’s a terrific effort from the club’s marketing team – even if the last of the Putney End seats might have cost a full £10 less than my own ticket which I secured way back in the early summer (something which still grates) – and shows that there’s still plenty of enthusiasm for our European adventure. You expect a good crowd when Roma come to town. But CSKA Sofia have neither a grand name or a real European pedigree and still the sold out signs might be posted before kick-off tomorrow.
I’d be wary of writing off the Bulgarians altogether, though. They might have just the one point – which we may rue giving them in the opening game of the group stages – and be without their coach, who seems to have neglected to pay enough tax to annoy the Interior Ministry, but they’ll have plenty of pride to play for, even if their hopes of progressing even further are so remote that they’ll be requiring a minor miracle. They showed a great deal of spirit in their last game against Basel – when several first-teamers were still banned due to breaking team rules on pre-match drinking – and scored the goal of the game through the impressive Todor Yanchez. CSKA still lead the Bulgarian lead but they will have to do without top scorer Ivan Stoyanov who hasn’t boarded the flight to London. In his absence, Brazilian Michel Platini – who scored in the reverse fixture – will try and keep Hughes and Hangeland busy.
Roy Hodgson’s got selection headaches of his own, of course. He’s confirmed that Danny Murphy will start as he eases his way back to first-team football after a long period on the sidelines with a new injury. The captain is desperately needed with Jonathan Greening suspended after being booked in the Stadio Olimpico. Also missing are the two players Kevin Blom sent off that night: Erik Nevland and Paul Konchesky. Stephen Kelly will most likely replace Konchesky at left back after serving a suspension for being sent off in the home game against Roma and Bobby Zamora might have recovered from a groin strain to come in for Nevland, otherwise Fulham are rather short of options up front.
There’s nothing to lose tonight. Fulham might as well go down in a blaze of glory. Hodgson’s tactical approach is normally spot on but they should go for the jugular from the off as many of the continental sides can’t live with the helter skelter tempo of English football. An early goal would be a dream start – and that’s where this large crowd can come in handy. A racuous atmosphere to roar the boys onto Basel and beyond would set the tone perfectly.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Kelly, Hughes, Hangeland; Baird, Murphy, Davies, Duff; Zamora, Dempsey. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Smalling, Anderson, Etuhu, Riise, Gera, Uwezu.