With no serious football to concentrate on in the past month or so, Shakhtar Donetsk have been keeping their fans entertained with a few funny stories on their website. Tucked in alongisde Andriy Voronin’s insistence that Fulham like to whack the ball long (he can’t have paid much attention during Liverpool’s defeat at the Cottage earlier in the season then), was a tale of how the squad were refused entry to Harrods. The Ukrainians arrived in London with little fear of a Fulham side, about whom the general consensus is that they’ve done well just to get out of the group stage, but Roy Hodgson’s boys have run into a little bit of form of late.
You’d probably still have to make the visitors favourites to progress but it’s not the walkover it might have looked like during Fulham’s dismal run in January. Shakhtar are no longer an unknown quantity having become the last winners of the UEFA Cup in a quiet run to glory last season and they are breathing right down the necks of Dynamo Kiev back home too. They sit in second place, just one point behind the leaders, having only lost a single league game all season.
Hodgson’s side will have their work cut out to stifle Shakhtar’s South American flair too. Even if most of Shakhtar’s squad are Ukrainian, there is a hefty sprinking of Brazilians in the line-up. The likes of Dickson Etuhu and Danny Murphy will have to quickly get to grips with Fernandinho, Jadson and Ilsinho. Up front, nobody will need to be reminded of the potency of Luiz Adriano, Shakhtar’s top scorer with nine goals in 14 league games, and another five to add to the total from the Europa League.
Perhaps Fulham’s best chance of springing a surprise comes with the fact that Shakhtar haven’t played a competitive game since the middle of December and that was their defeat by Partizan Belgrade in the Europa League. You have to go back to December 12 for Donetsk’s last league outing and, although the squad have been playing some warm-weather friendlies in Spain in preparation for this game, they won’t come close to the hustle and bustle of playing an English side on a cold February night by the Thames.
Roy Hodgson has already signalled that Fulham’s improved league performances – perhaps best encapsulated by the clinical dispatching of Burnley last week – make him a little more relaxed about fielding a strong side in Europe, especially as they move closer to Premier League safety. You do get the sense that Fulham will need to build a lead for the away leg so a strong performance at the Cottage tomorrow night is essential.
The manager has a few selection worries to ponder over before picking his team. Paul Konchesky has returned to light training after his foot injury at Motspur Park but won’t be rushed back into action tomorrow night. With Nicky Shorey ineligible, Hodgson is most likely to press Stephen Kelly into service at left back as he has done before in the Europa League this season. The Irish international hasn’t been in great form of late, but the memory of his lungbursting run to the Basel byline before he pulled the ball back for Zoltan Gera to score the crucial third before Christmas shows what he can do in an unfamilar role.
Chris Baird should continue at right back – having been impressive there of late – and that should allow Etuhu and Murphy to continue their solid understanding at the heart of the Fulham midfield. Simon Davies scored on Sunday and will have staked a strong place to line-up with Damien Duff on the flanks, although Jonathan Greening has also been in good form out wide and Zoltan Gera, impressive before his untimely knee injury, will be available for selection again. With Stefano Okaka unavailable, the promising partnership of David Elm and Bobby Zamora is likely to test the aerial ability of the Shakhtar defence. It should be a cracker down at the Cottage.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Baird, Kelly, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Duff, Davies; Elm, Zamora. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Stoor, Smalling, Greening, Riise, Gera, Nevland.