It might not be entirely logical, but I feel a surge of optimism about tonight’s game at the moment. Injury-hit Juventus are wary of a trip to the Cottage (as shown by Alberto Zaccheroni’s disappointment that his side hadn’t killed the tie off in Turin) and Fulham, although massive underdogs this evening, have a habit of pulling off the unexpected.
Hodgson’s team will need to cut out the dire defensive mistakes that left us with a mountain to climb in the first game. Roy was particularly irritated by our poor defending from set plays – losing the first goal from the corner was not something such a disciplinarian would have appreciated. He would probably have been annoyed by the lack of closing down as Jonathan Zebina strode purposefully towards goal, but I doubt the full-back – who will apparently be pressed into service in central defence this evening – will ever strike a ball as sweetly again. More desperate marking led to what could prove to be a crucial third goal for Trezeguet, but there was enough about our improved performance in the second half to suggest that Fulham aren’t out of this.
Much will depend on the strategy of the Italians. They seemed to be happy with the 3-1 scoreline as time ticked on in the second half and there’s nothing Italian sides like better than keeping it tight at the back. Playing for a draw – or even a narrow defeat – is a dangerous strategy, though. Juventus will know that an away goal of their own would pretty much ensure their progress into the quarter finals so Zaccheroni might send them out to score one.
Injuries and suspensions mean that Juve will be far from their strongest this evening. Both Buffon and Manninger are missing in goal, so Zaccheroni will have a choice between the 39-year-old Antonio Chimenti, who was far from impressive in the 3-3 draw with Siena at the weekend, and youth-team custodian Carlo Pinsoglio in goal. Injuries will deprieve Juve of Martin Caceres, Giorgio Chiellini, Sebastian Giovinco, Michele Paolucci and Amauri are all out through injury and Nicola Legrottaglie, a scorer from the first leg, is suspended.
Fulham have selection worries themselves too. Danny Murphy’s needless sending off towards the end of our success against Shakhtar means we’ll be without our influential captain for another big European nights. The Whites badly missed his quality on the ball in the first leg and, with Brede Hangeland battling to overcome a chest injury he sustained at Old Trafford on Sunday, Hodgson could be forced to make do without two of his major players. With Jonathan Greening banned, the Fulham manager might have to go with Dickson Etuhu and Chris Baird in central midfield. The ill David Elm and Bjorn-Helge Riise will be monitored by club doctors in the build-up to the game to see if they can play any part tonight.
Everyone’s been talking about the importance of an early goal in recent days, but even if the scoreboard is still blank with half an hour to go, Fulham shouldn’t lose their belief. They’ll need a big performance from Bobby Zamora up front, who had a few encouraging moments against Fabio Canavarro in the first leg, and it will be vital to get our more creative players on the ball. Clint Dempsey will be desperate to start and make an impression on the big stage, having missed a lot of football of late, while the clever Damien Duff might be able to unlock a resolute Juve defence. Make sure you don’t take your eyes off this one.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Kelly, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Baird, Duff, Dempsey; Gera; Zamora. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Smalling, Dikgacoi, Davies, Riise, Elm, Nevland.