And so we’re here. Improbably, Fulham’s European tour, which has already spanned some 18,000 miles in ten months, ends tonight in Hamburg with a major trophy within touching distance. It says something about the remarkable job Roy Hodgson has done that just reaching the group stage of the inagural Europa League was seen as an achievement. I remember the sigh of relief that greeted the final whistles in Perm, Basel and Donetsk as a resilient Fulham side proved their worth.
Fulham’s run to the final – much like Middlesbrough’s a few years ago – has been a victory for the little guy. Neither team had been expected to progress much beyond the initial stages of the tournament but they have shown just how far you can go with shrewd management, good organisation and plenty of hard work. Hodgson has plenty of European experience (though he’ll want to experience a happier ending than losing on penalties, as he did with Inter in the UEFA Cup final back in the mid-90s) but the LMA’s manager of the year has already indicated that getting to a showpiece final with Fulham outstrips anything he’s achieved in an impressive managerial career.
The wily old coach might have a tactical plan to deal with a dangerous Atletico attack but he shouldn’t have to worry about a team-talk tonight. Sergio Aguero’s ill-advised broadside might have done the job for him. It’s precisely because Fulham lack a European pedigree and they aren’t one of the leading lights of the English game that makes this such a fairytale as well as making the unfashionable side by the banks of the Thames so dangerous.
Atletico are the favourites, even with the British bookmakers, and they will have already noted that they might have history on their side. Their only European trophy was won on German soil and they even have the edge in terms of a lack of fraught preparations. Quique Sanchez Flores is only missing reserve goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo through injury and has a wealth of attacking talent to pick from. Both Augero, the pint-sized Argentine and Diego Forlan, the former Manchester United striker whose extra-time goal knocked Liverpool out in the semi-finals at Anfield, have scored eight goals between them in Europe this season. Former Arsenal winger Jose Antonio Reyes will be a real threat down the wing tonight. With Simao and Jurado oozing class in midfield, Hodgson will no doubt be hoping that skipper Danny Murphy and Dickson Etuhu are able to impose themselves on an important midfield battle.
Hodgson’s team selection, as ever for our European fixtures, remains uncertain as we get closer to kick-off. Damien Duff and Bobby Zamora both trained on Monday although Zamora, who apparently turned down the chance to be named in Fabio Capello’s provisional World Cup squad in order to have an operation on his troublesome Achilles tendon over the summer, missed Fulham’s final training session at the HSV Nordbank Arena last night as a precaution. His fitness will be monitored over the course of the day and Hodgson will be hoping that he can field his Gera-Zamora axis this evening.
Duff’s European experience would also be a handy boost and the word is that the Irish international should start. Whether Clint Dempsey, whose majestic goal against Juventus will live long in the memory as perhaps the single most memorable moment of this European adventure, starts remains to be seen as Hodgson has favoured introducing the American from the bench since he returned from a knee injury.
Given that Fulham were in the fourth division when Hodgson narrowly missed out on lifting the UEFA Cup with Inter in 1997, you’d forgive those who have travelled for treating this as a day out. Whilst watching the Whites in a European final is still something to get your head around for some of us, Hodgson’s made it clear that Fulham are here to win it. Both Murphy and Mark Schwarzer have emphasised in recent days that Fulham’s victories in the knockout stages of the competition mean they have no fear of any opponent and will head out onto the field this evening full of confidence.
Atletico do have considerable ability going forward but their domestic form has been undermined by a rather frail defence. Whereas Fulham’s journey to Hamburg has been characterised by defensive discipline and durability, Atletico have largely made it on the back of scoring goals. Opportunity must certainly knocks for Fulham tonight. Let’s hope they take it.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Duff, Dempsey; Gera; Zamora. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Smalling, Baird, Greening, Davies, Riise, Nevland.