FK Vetra v Fulham, Europa League qualifier, July 30, 2009
FK Vetra 6/1; Draw 3/1; Fulham 4/11
“If we are going to get anywhere near what we did last season, especially if we are to have any success in Europe, we need a stronger and a bigger squad of players.” – Roy Hodgson.
Fulham make their long awaited return to European football on Thursday night, seven years after their last continental exertion in the UEFA Cup which saw the Cottagers advance to the third round after beating Hajduk Split and Dinamo Zagreb before eventually falling to Hertha Berlin.
Heading off to Lithuania to to meet minnows FK Vetra, the biggest concerns for Roy Hogson will be a lack of match practice ahead of his team’s first competitive outing of the 2009/10 season, gelled with a lack of respect for the unknown quantity facing the Premier League side.
Fulham had prepared for the match with an intensive pre-season schedule that began in Australia with three matches (wonÂ two and lost one), followed by two successive draws against Bournemouth (0-0) and Peterborough United (3-3).
Last year Fulham exceeded all expectations recording a tremendous seventh-placed finish in the league. Piecing together an eclectic first team squad the has now swelled to 15 different nationalities, Hodgson managed to outdo expectations by creating a solid unit who excelled at home, and who were founded on a miserly rearguard led by veteran keeper Mark Schwarzer and the hugely-impressive Brede Hangeland at the heart of the defence. (Fulham are 8/13 to keep a clean sheet.)
In the middle of the park Dickson Etuhu offers the Cottagers steal and drive, ably assisted by Premier League stalwart Simon Davies, while Clint Dempsey, Danny Murphy, Zoltan Gera and now the newly acquired Bjorn Helge Riise are all capable of injecting flair and creativity that can hurt the opposition. Up top, last season’s top goalscorer Andrew Johnson (4/1 to score first) and Bobby Zamora (6/5 to score) should lead the line, with Diomansy Kamara and Erik Nevland primed to join the attack from the bench.
So what do we know about FC Vetra?
The Lithuanians currently sit in second place in their domestic league having won nine and lost only once in their opening 14 games this season. In the Europa Cup though things have not been so straightforward, Vetra eased past CS Grevenmacher 6-0 on aggregate in round one before narrowly sneaking past HJK Helsinki 3-2 on aggregate to set up a date with the Londoners. (Second leg highlights here.)
With almost an exclusively Lithuanian squad, the player most likely to pose Fulham a threat are striker Mindaugas Grigalevicius (11/4 to score), who has so far chalked up 6 goals in 10 matches this season. From a defensive prospective, Cameroonian holding midfielder Bertrand Ngapounou has a powerful engine and will prove a tough opponent to sidestep in the middle of the park.
Fulham should have too much quality to fallÂ in an embarrassing banana-skin tie, and they should also be buoyed in the knowledge that the last English team to face Vetra, Blackburn back in 2007, hammered the minnows 6-nil on aggregate in the Intertoto Cup.
101predicts: FK Vetra 1 – Fulham 2 (15/2)
Full match odds here.