Plenty of unanswered questions abound ahead of tonight’s semi-final second leg against Hamburg. Fulham’s biggest night in the Europa League this season (though we’ve been saying that with each passing round) is almost here and yet there’s a sense of uncertainty and, dare I say it, a bit of foreboding too.
The Whites have always been a nearly side. Never have we progressed this far in European competition and, as Mohamed Al-Fayed has said already today, much of the credit for that must go to Roy Hodgson, who seems to specialise in achieving more than seems possible. But Fulham are also something of a nearly side. Even the trip to Wembley in 1975 was tinged with a bit of sadness as an excellent start gave way to disappointing failure. Our last semi-final, that ridiculous Sunday evening jaunt to Birmingham to face Chelsea in the FA Cup, definitely had a sense of anti-climax about it.
The tie remains delicately balanced after the goalless draw in Hambrug a week ago. That was an exceptional performance and a fine result, but the quirks of the away goals system mean that a single Hamburg goal tonight – always a possibility with the likes of van Nistelrooy, Petric, Berg and Guerrero in the side – would tilt the tie very definitely in the Germans’ favour. The big question is how the sacking of Bruno Labbadia, after a 5-1 defeat by Hoffenheim at the weekend, will impact upon Hamburg. The new manager (or in this case, promoted assistant) effect might just spur the Hamburg players on to produce a big performance.
Fulham know precisely what is needed tonight. They’ll need to remain just as disciplined as they were in Germany, but be a little more adventurous with the ball. That shouldn’t prove too difficult as Hodgson’s sides, whilst difficult to beat anywhere, are often more progressive at the Cottage. The key, of course, remains the balance between defensive solidity and carrying a threat up front, something which might prove tougher than normal should Bobby Zamora fail a fitness test on his troublesome Achilles.
If you’d have asked a Hammersmith End critic last season just how important Zamora was to the success of the Fulham side, they might have laughed and told you that he was useless. Goals have gone in this year for the rejuvanted forward, but it remains as much as his insatiable work rate and ability to bring others into play that troubles defenders as much as his goalscoring. Should Bobby not make it, there may be a chance for Erik Nevland to deliver a memorable send off just a couple of weeks before he prepares to finish his playing career back at Viking. The Norwegian’s scored some valuable goals in his time at the Cottage.
Midfield will once again be a key area. The way in which Dickson Etuhu and Danny Murphy have combined in the centre of the park has seen off some illiustrous foes already in this competition. The Nigerian was immense against Juventus here and Murphy’s clever passing was one of the reasons why Hodgson’s side looked so comfortable against Wolfsburg in the quarter final. The Fulham captain might not have hit the incredible heights of last season but he remains the heartbeat of this side. If he can use his experience of big European nights to set the right tempo and get the likes of Damien Duff and Clint Dempsey on the ball, then Fulham have a chance of ruining Hamburg’s hopes of a happy homecoming for the final in May.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Duff, Dempsey; Gera; Zamora. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Kelly, Smalling, Davies, Riise, Nevland, Elm.