Forget the trip to the Stadio Olimpico and discard the must-win match in Basel. This will be Fulham’s toughest European test to date. Much was made of Shakhtar’s pretty passing in the first leg last week but their performance could only be improved with a little more match practice after having previously not played a competitive game since the Ukrainian league began a long winter break in mid-December.
There’s also the fact that Shakhtar will be a very different proposition in Donetsk. Their home record is nothing short of astonishing. They have lost just one game this season and our almost impregnable at the Donbass Arena. They sit just two points behind leaders Dynamo Kyiv in the league – and will hoping to put Fulham on the back foot early on this evening.
Much of Shakhtar’s success is down their genial coach Mircea Lucescu. Regarded by his players as an inspirational manager, the Romanian has had an almost Mourinho-like effect on the Miners since taking over the reigns in 2004. He has won three Ukrainian championships and, of course, launched the unforgettable odyssey to UEFA Cup glory last year. Such achievements make it all the more remarkable that the Shakhtar board were heavily rumoured to be close to approaching Juande Ramos, the former Tottenham coach who had a disastrous 47-day spell at CSKA Moscow after being sacked at White Hart Lane, as they inexplicably pondered whether to offer Lucescu a new deal after his European success.
Shakhtar’s South American influence gives them a distinctly different flavour to a lot of former Soviet republic sides. Though they have the capacity to be as gritty and industrious as spirited Russian and Ukrainian outfits, Shakhtar have a unique style of their own. At times in the first leg, it seemed as though Shakhtar were playing to a Samba beat. For 40 minutes in the first half, their Brazilian front five had a real influence on the contest. Ilsinho illustrated his importance with a brilliantly threaded ball through the Fulham defence to find the deadly Luiz Adriano for the equaliser. Fernandinho ran the game from an exceptionally deep position in midfield and the wondering Willian drifted into dangerous positions. Regular Shahktar watchers report that the likes of Jadson and Douglas Costa could a hell of a lot more effective in the home game.
The conventional wisdom is that Shakhtar could well win comfortably tomorrow night. Their irresistable approach play will certainly test Hodgson’s reputation for meticulous planning and organisation. Hangeland and Hughes will have a busy night at the heart of the Fulham back four but, for me, the game will be won and lost in midfield. Where Chris Baird was unexpectedly outstanding when pressed in central midfield earlier this season, Dickson Etuhu has been disappointing since returning from the African Cup of Nations recently. The Nigerian needs to be at his imposing best to disrupt Shakhtar’s rhythm this evening.
Just as important will be the mentality with which Fulham stride onto the pitch tonight. The dangerous strategy would be to try and protect what we have – I’d go as far as to say that would be particularly foolish. Far better for Fulham to show some attacking ambition, especially as the Donetsk defence creaked alarmingly under pressure in London last week. Goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov couldn’t have done much to stop Bobby Zamora’s winning thunderbolt but you would imagine that he was disheartened to let Zoltan Gera’s early shot slip through his grasp.
Donetsk had little answer to Zamora’s pace and power and it was encouraging to note Zoltan Gera’s impact on proceedings. The Hungarian scampered into several threatening positions and his classy flick into Zamora’s path created the winner almost out of nothing. Gera could have a similar influence on things tonight, especially if he continues in such a rich vein of form. With Damien Duff rediscovering the zest that characterised his entry into English footbnall with Blackburn all those years ago, Fulham will have plenty of ways to unlock the Shakhtar defence.
Much of Hodgson’s success at Fulham has stemmed from selecting the same side. That luxury hasn’t been available to the wily coach for much of this season due to just the ill-fortune with injuries that we had managed to avoid during our record breaking previous campaign. But he seems to have settled on a system that works, especially with Duff and Davies cutting in from the opposite/’wrong’ flanks, to such great effect. Indeed, perhaps the only change from the team that showed such spirit to see off Birmingham on Sunday will be enforced as the ineligible Nicky Shorey is replaced by Stephen Kelly at left back.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Baird, Kelly, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Duff, Davies; Gera; Zamora. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Marsh-Brown, Smalling, Greening, Riise, Nevland, Elm.