The day’s finally here. There’s been more anticipation and anxiety about this stage of our European adventure than any other and that’s not just because we’re in the last four of a European competition for the very first time. All the uncertainty over whether the tie would go ahead and how the players and fans would make the trip out to Germany what with that friendly Icelandic volcano has almost made the football secondary. The fact that many people’s plans have been disrupted or shelved by an angry volcano just as the Whites reach a major semi-final does strike you as rather Fulhamish.
The game itself should be a real ocassion. One of the legacies of Roy Hodgson’s sterling achievements at the Cottage is that nobody takes us too lightly anymore. Hamburg will be aware of the threats posed by a well-organised and hardworking English side but will still be confident of taking a lead to London for the second leg. They do, of course, have the considerable carrot of a home final dangling in front of them as well.
They crashed out at this stage last year to bitter Bundesliga rivals Werder Bremen and are desperate not to avoid a similar fate this time around. Whilst their domestic form has been patchy – Hamburg sit in seventh as the German season draws a close – they are unbeaten in their seven European home games this year. With no Mladen Petric, most of the focus will be on Ruud van Nistelrooy, whose nine goals in ten games against us for Manchester United will strike fear into Fulham hearts.
I would take issue with the assertion of Hamburg coach Bruno Labbadia that we’ll be sitting deep.
Fulham will play defensively with only one striker so we have to be very patient and pass the ball around.
A characteristic of Hodgson’s planning and our away performances is that while we are pretty resilience, there’s an onus to get forward and pose a problem as well. Knowing the value of scoring away from home, Fulham will surely look to get one. We’ve only failed to score in one of our European away games – and that was way back in August over in deepest Russia.
The strength of German sides in Europe is well known. Hamburg have the organisation and drive that seems to hardwired into the German teams but they also have plenty of creativity in their line-up. Captain David Jarolim can certainly play a killer ball as well as keeping things steady in midfield, whilst out wide the Whites will have to watch the exceptionally gifted Eljero Elia and keep an eye on Jonathan Pitroipa.
Hamburg are well staffed in the defensive department too so Bobby Zamora might not find it as easy to run wild on this particular European night. With the likes of Mathijsen, Rozenhal, Demel and Boateng able to play in the back line, the home side will probably be confident of shutting Fulham down. The massive x-factor is just how an ardurous coach journey, further held up by a crash on the autobahn yesterday as the boys finally arrived in Germany, will affect the team.
Hodgson conceded that the plan to give the physios some extra time to work on some weary bodies in preparation for kick-off tonight would need to be modified, but these boys have come through adversity more than once already this season.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Baird, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Duff, Davies; Gera; Zamora. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Kelly, Smalling, Riise, Dikgacoi, Nevland, Elm.