Kick Off: Wednesday, May 12. 20:45 CET
HSH Nordbank Arena, Hamburg
HSH Nordbank Arena, Hamburg
Saving The Season
Spanish heavyweights Atletico Madrid meet English upstarts Fulham in Germany on Wednesday evening for the right to become the first side ever to claim the Europa League title. The remodeled UEFA Cup has provided fans with more than its share of thrills and controversy since kicking off on July 2, 2009, and both of the finalists have endured bucket loads of tension and euphoria en route to Hamburg.
For Atleti, the midweek encounter represents an opportunity to save a comparatively dismal campaign. Having finished fourth in La Primera Division last season, a slow start under the now deposed Abel Resino has handicapped the club sufficiently to ensure they will finish no higher than ninth in Spain this term.
On the face of it, their European campaign has been little better. After winning both legs of a Champions League qualifier against Panathinaikos, Atleti’s continental form quickly followed that of their domestic play. Somehow los Colchoneros scrambled to third in their Champions League pool ahead of unheralded Apoel, despite failing to win a game, and have since made full use of the safety net provided for them.
Specialists at progressing via the away goals rule, the team now headed by former Benfica boss Quique Sanchez Flores have only outscored Galatasaray in their four ties, winning only two individual matches from the eight Europa League games they’ve played this season. Walking such a tightrope, it’s almost inevitable that Atleti have had their share of luck to progress to the grand finale, surviving desperate late penalty appeals from Valencia in their quarter-final encounter that could so easily have gone the other way.
For several weeks the thoughts of the Madrid club have been increasingly turned towards Wednesday’s encounter, further affecting their league form but serving them sufficiently to eliminate the likes of Sporting, los Che and Liverpool en route to Germany, where they will look to add to the Cup Winners’ Cup they claimed in 1961-62.
Fulham have made little secret of their desire to claim European glory, having seen their standing as a club rise astronomically over the course of the last decade-and-a-half.
Situated in one of London’s wealthiest areas, the Cottagers’ history is certainly not rich with success. In 1995-96, the Craven Cottage side flirted with the possibility of dropping out of the Football League set-up altogether, but under the stewardship of millionaire Mohamed Al-Fayed, the Whites have bounded forth to remarkable heights.
Wily manager Roy Hodgson deserves a great deal of credit for leading the Cottagers to such levels, and the multi-lingual boss received just that on Monday evening, when he was awarded the LMA (League Managers Association) Manager of the Year award.
When Hodgson took charge in 2007, relegation to the Championship looked a probability, but the former Inter coach has since galvanized the club, laying solid foundations in their defense and helping them maintain their status as an established Premier League club.
A place in a first ever European final has been a welcome bonus for the London outfit, who frequently fielded a rotated side as they muddled their way through a group stage containing Roma, CSKA Sofia and Basel, who Fulham beat 3-2 in their final game to ensure marginal progression.
As Premier League safety grew increasingly inevitable, so too did Hodgson’s eyes for European glory, and it was only once the knockout stage began that the potential of the team start to be realized. The 3-2 aggregate victory over UEFA Cup holders Shakhtar Donetsk was perhaps an under-rated success, and it was pushed further into the shadows by a dream evening at the Cottage, when Fulham clawed their way back from 4-1 down on aggregate to defeat Italian giants Juventus 5-4.
Bundesliga outfits Wolfsburg and Hamburg, whose party they are now crashing, have since fallen at Fulham’s sword, and there is little to suggest that they cannot complete one of the most remarkable continental cup runs on Wednesday night by slaying Atletico Madrid.
DREW 1-1 (a) Sporting de Gijon (Liga, May 8)
WON 3-1 (h) Valladolid (Liga, May 5)
LOST 3-1 (a) Sevilla (Liga, May 2)
LOST 2-1 aet (a) Liverpool (Europa League, April 29)
WON 3-1 (h) Tenerife (Liga, April 25)
LOST 4-0 (a) Arsenal (Premier League, May 9)
LOST 1-0 (h) Stoke City (Premier League, May 5)
WON 3-2 (h) West Ham United (Premier League, May 2)
WON 2-1 (h) Hamburg (Europa League, April 29)
LOST 2-1 (a) Everton (Premier League, April 25)
After resting a whole host of regular first team players at the weekend, among them Sergio Aguero, Diego Forlan and Paulo Assuncao, Atleti will field a full strength squad on Wednesday.
Quique Sanchez Flores has few serious injury headaches, though the club have been taken aback by the ligament damage that young goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo suffered against Sporting de Gijon at the weekend, ruling him out for six months.
Luis Perea is a doubt, but the speedy defender is expected to slot into the back four as usual.
Tiago and Ibrahima are not eligible, so Raul Garcia will probably take a station in the centre of the midfield.
Probable Starting XI: De Gea; Ujfalusi, Perea, Dominguez, Lopez; Reyes, Assuncao, Garcia, Simao; Aguero, Forlan
Much of the build-up regarding Fulham has centered around the fitness of striker Bobby Zamora, who was clearly playing through the pain barrier as he helped his side through against Hamburg in the semi-finals. The former West Ham United forward hasn’t featured since, and he remains touch-and-go.
Damien Duff continues to fight a muscular problem and will be deployed if deemed fit, but Andrew Johnson remains a long-term issue.
Stefano Okaka and Nicky Shorey are ineligible
Probable Starting XI: Schwarzer; Paintsil, Hughes, Hangeland, Konchesky; Duff, Murphy, Etuhu, Davies; Gera, Zamora
PLAYERS TO WATCH
If reports in the press are true, this could be Sergio Aguero’s final game for los Colchoneros. Regarded as one of the best strikers in the world game, ‘El Kun’ will test the English side’s backline with his intelligent movement and explosive pace. The Argentine has already enjoyed success against Premier League opponents, having found the net twice against Chelsea in the Champions League, and the Blues will be anxious to see how one of their reported targets fares against opposition he may face more regularly next term.
Norway international center-back Brede Hangeland has been one of the outstanding signings of Roy Hodgson’s tenure at Craven Cottage and has a massive role to play in Wednesday evening’s match. Having been plucked from the relative obscurity of the Danish league, the 28-year-old American-born center-back has become the cornerstone of the Cottagers’ defense and will be required to play the game of his season against one of Europe’s most fearsome offensive lines if his side are to succeed.
Roy Hodgson will doubtless set his side up intelligently, and the well-drilled nature of the Cottagers will make it incredibly difficult for Atleti to break their opponents down. Questions remain over the Spanish side’s rearguard, but if they can get on top of things in their defensive quadrant, they have to be warm favorites to lift the trophy. A fascinating clash of styles will be played out, making it tough to pick a winner but promising an enticing affair.
Atletico Madrid 2-1 Fulham
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