It was clear from Saturday’s team selection that the Fulham fans aren’t the only ones who are looking forward to the visit of the German champions on Thursday. Roy Hodgson’s decision to make six changes to the team that bowed out of the FA Cup at Spurs suggested two things: 1) his priority was Fulham’s forthcoming Europa League quarter-final and 2) that he’d almost certainly already decided on the eleven that would start at Craven Cottage.
It would be wrong to call Wolfsburg an unknown quantity, since they won the title last year, but they were certainly unexpected Bundelisga champions. Their history is somewhat similar to ours, even if they were a slightly pre-World War Two successor to the Volkswagen works team in Lower Saxony. Predominantly a second-tier side, the Wolves reached a German Cup in 1995 but were still expected to be something of a one-season wonder when they won promotion to the top flight in 1997.
Instead, they quickly established themselves as mid-table regulars. Appropriately managed by Wolfgang Wolf, Wolfsburg came remarkably close to qualifying for the Champions’ League in 1999. A 6-1 thumping on the final day at Duisburg put an end to that dream, though they did do enough to finish sixth and qualify for the UEFA Cup. Like Fulham, they have history in the now-defunct Intertoto Cup (participating on five occassions). Just like the Whites, Wolfsburg progressed to face Italian opposition in the final, but lost to Perugia in 2003.
The appointment of former Bayern Munich manager Felix Magath helped Wolfsburg surge of a couple of seasons scrapping against relegation to the higher etchelons of the table. In Magath’s first season, the Wolves recorded a club record finish of fifth, which saw them qualify for the UEFA Cup again. Magath managed to top the achievement by landing the title the following season. Ten successive post-winter break victories put Wolfsburg on course for the championship and their successive owed much to their two twenty goal-plus strikers, Grafite (28 goals) and Edin Džeko (26).
The Germans almost qualified from their Champions’ League group, but they ran into one Michael Owen’s rare predatory moods this season, and had to settle for continuing their European adventure in the Europa League. Managerial changes had an effect too. Magath had been poached by Schalke and his replacement Armin Veh was sacked in January, after a two month winless run, that saw Wolfsburg slump to tenth in the table. Interim manager Lorenz-Günther Köstne r has steadied the ship a little, but Wolfsburg sit in ninth well off pace, despite Saturday’s 2-0 win at Mainz.
There are plenty of threats that Fulham will have to neutralise. The first two seem obvious. Both Džeko, whose late brace secured the weekened win at Mainz, and Grafite are in good form again: the Bosnian is German football’s second highest scorer with 24 goals, including five in Europe, while Grafite has managed 16. Ex-Newcastle forward Obafemi Martins should also be watched carefully, while there’s plenty of talent in midfield. Zvjezdan Misimovic shouldn’t be allowed too much time on the ball, whilst German international Christian Genter scored twice in the Europa League.
The Wolves are certainly entertaining. They’ve scored 52 Bundesliga goals (the fourth highest) but let in 51 (only Bochum and Hannover have conceded more) despite boasting the likes of Jan Šimunek, Alexander Madlung, Andrea Barzagli and Sergei Karimov in defence. That weakness might have Bobby Zamora licking his lips. It should be a cracking contest.