Nobody could complain if Fulham’s European adventure came to an end in Wolfsburg tonight. Since starting way back in the sunny days of June, the Whites have gone further and further in Europe’s second-biggest competition and seen the Europa League even usurp the league in Roy Hodgson’s list of priorities: some achievement when you consider he was originally using the tournament to give some of our fringe players a bit of much practice. Nobody believed we’d get out of a tricky group, especially after a traumatic defeat in Rome, much less beat the holders and one of the favourites in the knockout stages.
The tantalising thing about this tie is had we had not afforded Alexander Madlung a free header from a short corner in the dying embers of the first leg at Craven Cottage last week, even some of notoriously pessimistic fans might be dreaming of a semi-final meeting with Hamburg or Standard Liege. The more and more you think about the ramifications of that away goal, though, the more it makes you wonder whether it may work in Fulham’s favour. At 2-0, a continental coach like Hodgson, well-drilled in the Italian defensive philosophy, might well have been tempted to shut up shop. Now, by being a bit more daring, Fulham will have more of a chance to cancel that Wolfsburg away goal.
The German champions are having something of a disastrous domestic season, having dispensed with Felix Magath’s replacement at the turn of the year. They sit halfway up the Bundesliga, a legacy of a pitiful home record and some particularly generous defending. As we saw in the second half of the first game, there’s no doubt that Fulham can trouble a defence that didn’t look terribly Germanic. Both Bobby Zamora and Zoltan Gera will be licking their lips in anticipation of adding to their impressive European goal tallies.
As in the first leg, Fulham will have to watch the dangerous Dzeko and Grafite, who never really flourished at the Cottage, and perhaps Obafemi Martins, too, who perked the visitors up when he came on as a late substitute. Wolfsburg will probably be a different proposition at home, roared on by their own fans, although they had plenty of the game in the first period of the first leg. It will be important for Fulham to keep the ball better than they did in that first 45 minutes and get some of the flowing passing that eventually unlocked the German defence going. Discipline will also be vital and Hodgson will want to draw on the considerable European experience of Schwarzer, Hughes, Murphy and Duff to calm any nerves.
Hodgson’s selection shouldn’t be too surprising. He’s been a consistent coach since taking over at the Cottage and the same 4-4-1-1 system, originally designed for when he had a lack of forwards at his disposal, should be employed tomorrow night. Indeed, Fulham’s major concerns are about the availability of players rather than any late tactical switch.
Stephen Kelly’s injury is likely to keep him out of this game and John Pantsil’s return for the reserves yesterday has probably come too soon for this contest. That means Simon Davies, who did very well as a makeshift right back a week ago, will probably fill in there again tonight. That will allow Hodgson to fit Davies, Duff, Dempsey and Gera into the same side – something he has struggled to do since the Irish international arrived at Fulham just after the start of the season – and at once that should sprinkle some more creativity throughout the team.
Dickson Etuhu will probably keep out Chris Baird and partner Danny Murphy in central midfield but the Nigerian will need to be back to his imposing best. It will have to be more a case of Juventus revisited for Etuhu, who has the ability to scrap with the very best of them. If he might be persuaded to unleash a few more thunderbolts from distance rather than being so passive in possession, Fulham may yet find another vital away goal. The most likely source of a goal remains Zamora, who so superbly opening the scoring in the first leg, and Hodgson remains confident that the England hopeful will be fit to play despite an Achilles injury that ruled him out of Sunday’s win over Wigan.
This team have surprised us many times this season. Tonight, in Volkswagen country, it would be lovely turn up if the Whites manage to motor into the last four. Here’s hoping.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Davies, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Baird, Murphy, Duff, Dempsey; Gera; Zamora. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Smalling, Riise, Etuhu, Greening, Nevland, Elm.