Who would have possibly foreseen this two years ago? Having miraculously avoided relegation on goal difference after winning four of their last five games in 2007/08, Fulham have been on an incredible journey over the last 24 months. A superb 7th place finish last season with a team made up of unglamorous but extremely hard-working players represented a massive achievement for the Craven Cottage outfit, yet still there were doubts voiced in various sections of the media. Were Fulham really good enough to compete in Europe? Would the congested fixture list prove too much for Roy Hodgson’s side? Seven months later, with wins over Shakhtar Donetsk, Juventus and Wolfsburg behind them, the doubters have been well and truly silenced.
Fulham’s reward for their astounding continental form comes in the shape of tonight’s Europa League semi-final clash with Bruno Labbadia’s Hamburg. Having recorded victories over Celtic, PSV Eindhoven and Standard Liege en route to the last four, Labbadia has got his team playing an exciting, free-flowing interpretation of 4-4-2 since taking over at the club last summer. Indeed, the German Coach has set his team out in such a fashion in 46 of the 49 competitive games his side has played this season and is highly likely to adopt the same approach against Fulham this evening.
A fast and dynamic back four is shielded by the experienced defensive midfield nous of Ze Roberto, the Brazilian likely to drop deep in order to disrupt Zoltan Gera in an attempt to cut off the more direct service in to Bobby Zamora. His partner in central midfield, captain David Jarolim, usually has slightly more attacking license, the Czech using his creative instincts to get into advanced areas and provide for the front two.
On the flanks, the likely combination of Robert Tesche on the right side and the Burkina Faso international Jonathan Pitroipa on the left should keep Fulham’s full-backs busy, with Pitroipa – the quicker of the two players and a more classical winger – likely to adopt a marginally more attacking position.
With regard to the forwards, Labbadia’s first-choice strike partnership this season has been the effective pairing of Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Mladen Petric, although the Croatian is set to miss tonight’s game through injury, meaning that Peruvian forward Paolo Guerrero – who is currently serving a domestic ban for assaulting a fan – will partner the great Dutchman.
As for Roy Hodgson’s tactical approach to the game, I think we can expect the familiar 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 system and the same personnel that Fulham deployed in their superb quarter-final victory over Wolfsburg. A settled back four of Paul Koncheskey, Brede Hangeland, Aaron Hughes and Chris Baird will sit behind the combative central midfield duo of Danny Murphy and Dickson Etuhu, whilst Damien Duff and Clint Dempsey – who looks set to return to the side after missing the last three games with a thigh injury – offer creativity in the wide areas. In fact, it could well Dempsey and Duff could well hold the keys to success tonight, potentially exploiting the space in behind Guy Demel and Dennis Aogo, two full-backs who relish the chance to get forward and can occasionally be caught out of position.
In attack, the Hungarian Zoltan Gera is likely to adopt a role as a deep-lying forward, providing support to the dangerous Bobby Zamora who has scored a remarkable nine goals in his 14 appearances in European competition this season.
With John Pantsil, Nicky Shorey and Stefano Okaka all ineligible for the tie, Hodgson has relatively little in reserve should he need to change his approach, but he will be confident in the ability of his players to produce yet another efficient and tactically aware performance, the kind of display the West London club has made its trademark in recent times.
For Fulham this is yet another in a long line of European ties in which they have been labeled as underdogs. Hodgson’s side are 9/2 to win tonight’s game, with their German opponents at 4/6. However, this is a team which seems to thrive on being unfancied, relishing the chance to prove a point in each and every game.
With Hamburg’s Bundesliga challenge having fallen away in recent weeks – Labbadia’s side are currently 7th, five points short of the European places – the semi-final, it could be argued, represents less of a challenge than the quarter-final clash with Wolfsburg, last season’s German champions and a team packed with more world-class talent than this Hamburg side.
Fulham are a team riding the crest of a wave and it would not be at all surprising if they were to plot the downfall of yet another of this competition’s “bigger” clubs to deny Hamburg the chance to win a European trophy on home soil. This should be a fascinating game.