There’s an air of gloom surrounding Fulham’s preparations for their latest Europa League assignment, which is probably their toughest, in Enschede this evening. The most newsworthy part of Martin Jol’s pre-match press conference saw the manager at his most downbeat, admitting that this is his toughest period in management. But while Fulham might be struggling to prove their credentials as a top ten side, which both Jol and his predecessor Mark Hughes talked up early in their time at Craven Cottage, they are a single win away from confirming qualification from Group K.
A feisty victory over Wisla Krakow last month put Jol’s side on the brink of reaching the knockout stages, although their Dutch opponents this evening will certainly not be taking their feet off the gas. Twente, disappointed to miss out reaching the Champions’ League proper, might have already qualified themselves and, while they could rest a couple of first-team regulars, defender Douglas has already insisted that they want to finish the group stages undefeated. Twente proved they are an impressive, good footballing side at Craven Cottage with Luuk de Jong, whose header dribbled in off a combination of Mark Schwarzer and the post for the equaliser, demonstrating the aerial ability that has interested Premier League scouts.
Twente are far from a one-man team, however. In the build up to tonight’s tie, plenty have focused on another promising youngster, albeit this time one with a Fulham connection. Nineteen year-old winger Ola John, brother of the former Fulham striker Collins, has been one of the stars of this year’s competition. Indeed, nobody can match John’s four assists in the Europa League and he has certainly repaid the faith of Twente coach Co Adriaanse having been fast-tracked into the side after the departure of Bryan Ruiz in the summer. John, who has yet to score in Europe this season, has found the net three times in fourteen Eredivisie appearances this year and is a confident young man, full of pace and creativity. He’ll certainly keep the Fulham defence busy this evening.
Jol’s team selection will be interesting tonight – and not just because Liverpool lay in wait on Monday night. He will be without a number of key first-team figures this evening. Steve Sidwell has been ruled out as he misses another game following his hernia operation, whilst Chris Baird and Clint Dempsey have also been left behind. Both are vitally important to the side in different ways. Baird’s quiet assurance and professionalism makes him a regular (his versatility means he can feature in any number of positions), while Dempsey’s creativity and goal threat means Fulham invariably look a flatter side without him.
Jol can call upon the likes of Stephen Kelly and Damien Duff again. Kelly has spoken this week about his disappointment at missing out on the Europa League final back in 2010, but he could become the club’s regular right back in the absence of the injured Zdenek Grygera. Duff’s first-team opportunities have been limited this season due to injuries and Jol’s baffling decision to leave him out, but the experienced winger has frequently shone on the European stage and will be desperate to prove a point this evening. The former Newcastle and Chelsea man has the ability to deliver the kind of crosses upon which Bobby Zamora can thrive – and that kind of quality could prove crucial tonight.