The next stop on Fulham’s thrilling European odyssey is a quarter final against Wolfsburg. There will an air of novelty around Craven Cottage tonight as neither side have reached this stage of a major European competition this far, although the visitors did win the German title last year. Since then, despite retaining their potent pair of strikers, things haven’t gone quite as well for Wolfsburg, who, having lost their championship-winning coach in Felix Magath, are currently marooned in mid-table.
But that’s no reason to take the Wolves for granted. For, alongside their traditional German efficiency and discipline, will be a steely determination to extend their European run. Their reaction to the draw suggested that, even though Fulham had eliminated the holders and one of the favourites to lift the cup come May in successive rounds, Wolfsburg were confident of being able to reach the semi-finals. Even if the dangerous Edin Dzeko doesn’t make it – and after all the rumours surrounding Roman Pavlyuchenko’s fitness I’m yet to be convinced that this isn’t just another elaborate attempt at mind games – there are plenty of other threats to our continued participation in the Europa League.
Let’s start with the mercurial Brazilian Grafite. The boy scores some spectacular goals and will certain keep Hughes and Hangeland busy at the heart of the Fulham defence. Should Dzeko miss out, the visitors will be able to call on the services of Obafemi Martins, the former Newcastle forward, who can be just devastating what he wants to be.
Danish midfielder Thomas Kahlenburg seems to got over an injury that threatened to derail his Wolfsburg career almost before it began, while captain Josue is particularly cultured for a holding midfielder (perhaps that’s because he is also from Brazil) and is fast closing in on a hundred league appearances for Wolfsburg. There are almost too many playmakers to fit in Wolfsburg’s midfield as the versatile Algerian Karim Ziani might be worth watching as well, especially if your name is Fabio Capello.
Hodgson’s selection for this one will be interesting, although by a process of elimination from the team that took the field at Hull on Saturday, you can work out who he’d like to play. John Pantsil has resumed training but it would be rather fanciful to suggest he’ll be another near the first team for a while yet. In the Ghana full back’s absence, it will be interesting to see who plays at right back. Stephen Kelly’s done well in Europe, albeit predominantly on the other side of the defence, and was sacrificed as Fulham went for the clinching goal in the last round against Juventus. Chris Baird was dropped after the defeat by Manchester City but had been in fine form both at full back and in what – for him, at any rate – was a more unorthodox role in central midfield.
Danny Murphy’s return from suspension will be a welcome bonus given how disappointing Fulham’s ball retention was in Turin. Against the top European sides, you can be punished so swiftly for not valuing possession highly and, when facing a side that can keep the ball, you might not see it again for a while. The skipper’s not hit the heights of previous seasons lately, but he’s well worth a place in the starting line-up for that priceless ability to unlock defences with a clever pass. Who plays alongside him will be interesting: should Kelly be preferred at right back, I’d be tempted to go with Baird but there’s a pretty persuasive argument for including Dickson Etuhu as the Nigerian and Murphy seem to gell well together.
Another outstanding question is the position of Clint Dempsey, who unforgettably chipped Fulham into the quarter finals with that audacious effort that finally floored Juve. The American waited patiently for his chance to press a starting claim and that was somewhat surprisingly picked as a lone forward at Hull, where he was starved of service. Whether that indicates that he’ll be relegated to the bench in favour of Simon Davies I’m not sure, but there’s a strong case for playing him. Dempsey’s one of the few members of the Fulham side capable of producing a moment of magic from nowhere (as Juventus can now testify) and he’s linked very well with Damien Duff this season. Davies is a quality player but he’s yet to look like the man who was head and shoulders above everyone else back in 2007-08.
Bobby Zamora’s fitness will be the main talking point in the run-up to kick off amongst the Fulham faithful. Who would have thought that last season’s much maligned man would become a pivotal figure? Zamora set the tone for that unbelievable comeback against Juventus by disdainfully brushing aside Cannavaro on his way to scoring the equaliser and, despite seeing him struggle with a cold, Hodgson seems quite confident that Bobby will be fit. If he teams up with Zoltan Gera as effectively as he has done in Fulham’s European campaign, it could be another magical night at the Cottage.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Baird, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Dempsey, Duff; Gera; Zamora. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Smalling, Dikgacoi, Greening, Riise, Davies, Nevland.