By Cameron Dickinson of The National Game
Almost 200 teams entered this year’s Europa League competition, they have played in 202 matches and scored 539 goals between them and it has now all come down to 90 minutes in Hamburg, where Fulham will take on Athletico Madrid in the final.
The two sides have embarked on vastly different journeys to get to the showpiece in the near 60,000 capacity HSH Nordbank Arena but both are desperate to banish memories of, at best, average league campaigns with a piece of major silverware to end their season.
If Fulham are to do that then it is vital that Bobby Zamora wins his fitness battle. The former West Ham man has been instrumental in the Cottagers’ march to the final, not only through scoring goals (he has six so far) but also through his build-up play which has laid on many chances for his team-mates. Zamora has been struggling with a long-standing Achilles injury and has not played since the semi-final win over Hamburg last month and his participation is in doubt. Another major doubt is rejuvenated winger Damien Duff who missed the game against Arsenal at the weekend with a calf problem. Both men are back in training ahead of the match but it remains to be seen whether they will be ready in time for Wednesday’s game.
Athletico Madrid go in to the final as hot favourites. They are the side with far more European pedigree and they have participated in the Champions League the last two seasons. Plus they have a wealth of attacking talent to call upon. Liverpool’s conqueror Diego Forlan has proven time and again that he has the ability at this level, but it is his attacking partner Sergio Aguero who will attract the most attention. The Argentine is one of Europe’s hottest properties, attracting interest from the likes of Chelsea and Barcelona and if his side are to win then he will have to perform.
Aguero himself has caused controversy by claiming that Madrid deserve to win the cup over Fulham due to their European legacy, adding even more motivation for Fulham, as if the club’s first ever European final wasn’t enough. The major absentee for the Spaniards is goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo who picked up a knee injury in the match with Racing Santander. This is not as big a blow as it could have been however as Asenjo has lost his place as number one to youngster David De Gea who, at the age of 19, is set to become one of the youngest goalkeepers to ever appear in a European final.
There is added incentive for both sides in this year’s final as the game marks a great chance for both to qualify for European competition as holders next season. Fulham overachieved last season in finishing 7th to qualify for the competition and while 12th place this season isn’t necessarily disappointing it does mean that if they are to play in Europe again next season then they need to win the trophy.
Madrid on the other hand have underachieved in La Liga this season. Having qualified for the Champions League through their league position last season they were expected to kick on and even mount a bit of a challenge to the top two, but this has not been the case. They have struggled for most of the season and have only recently reached the safety of mid table, a full 13 points off the top four. The Spaniards also have a Copa del Rey final coming up so they will at least have another shot at European qualification if they fail at their first attempt.
The Londoners preparation for the biggest game in their history has not exactly been ideal, taking just one league win from their final six games. They lost their last two games without scoring, whilst conceding five, although it could be argued that they have had one eye on this final in recent weeks. Still it is not ideal to come in to such an important game out of form but if anyone can inspire them to victory it’s the newly crowned LMA manager of the year Roy Hodgson.
Athletico have had a mixed bag of results on the domestic front in recent times picking up seven points from the last 18, three defeats in that spell has lowered confidence, particularly an embarrassing home defeat by bottom side Xerez. One shining light for them was their performance in the semi-finals against Liverpool. They more than matched their English opponents and perhaps this will give them confidence against another English foe in the final.
When Fulham’s journey started way back in July last year against Lithuanian side Vetra few would have predicted that they would reach the final, let alone that they would be facing then Champions League participants Athletico Madrid, but happened it has. Indeed this serves to highlight further the underdog status of Hodgson’s men. They are playing a team with European experience, a team with European pedigree and that should not be forgotten in all the excitement. Juventus, Shakhtar Donetsk, Hamburg and Wolfsburg have fallen by the wayside in earlier rounds, now it’ll take one last monumental effort to add Madrid to that impressive list and cap what will have been the greatest European fairytale ever seen.
Cameron Dickinson writes for The National Game and appears as a guest columnist for The Soccer Guys.