Juventus v Fulham, Europa League last 16, first-leg, March 11, 2010
Quite simply, Thursday night offers Fulham the most glamourous night in the club’s history, and all of a sudden Juventus are going, if not great, than good guns.
It has been a rocky season for the Italian Old Lady. The first half of the year was almost a total wash-out for the black and whites as former coach Ciro Ferrara watched on from the sidelines as the Turin giants saw their Scudetto challenge never get off the ground while a 4-1 home thumping at the hands of Bayern Munich ended their involvement in the Champions League.
Facing a season with nothing to show for it, the new year brought with it some important changes, and significantly Ferrara was axed and replaced by the current no-nonsense boss, Alberto Zaccheroni. Zaccheroni’s fresh face has so far brought with it a positive upturn in fortunes, only spoiled by a 2-nil home defeat to Palermo a fortnight ago, in which Juve successfully negotiated their way past Ajax in the Europa League, whilst also picking up wins against Genoa (home), Bologna (away) and Fiorentina (away).
Last weekend’s win at the Viola was the perfect shot in the arm for Juve as they head into the business end of the season. (Juventus are 3.75 to reach the final.)
From a tactical point of view, Alberto Zaccheroni continued to show himself as a wily old fox as he tinkered with his starting eleven (adopting a 4-3-2-1 Christmas Tree formation) with Diego and Antonio Candreva playing behind lone-striker David Trezeguet. Whether by luck or design, Diego, who has been a disappointment for large spells of his first season in Serie A, revelled in his role in the hole, and the Brazilian set the match alight with a goal inside the opening two minutes. Diego continued to boss the game in midfield and was integral in Juve’s eventual 2-1 win.
The match against Fiorentina also updated Juventus’ current injury situation. On the plus side, Vincenzo Iaquinta made his first appearance since facing Fiorentina themselves last October, coming on to replace David Trezeguet in the second half, and all of a sudden the Bianconeri seem to have options up top. Further, Danish enforcer Christian Poulsen also returned after an injury lay-off against the Viola, and his timing could not have been better as Felipe Melo will miss the first leg against Fulham due to suspension after collecting too many yellow cards.
For every yin though there is a yan, and Juve also picked up some unfortunate injury concerns in Florence. Paolo De Ceglie received a knock and was replaced at halftime, while the bigger news surrounds stalwart defender Giorgio Chiellini who picked up a problem with his left thigh that will leave Juve light at the back against the Cottagers.
Turning to plucky Fulham (10.50 to reach the final), having impressively dumped UEFA Cup holders Shakhtar Donetsk out of the tournament in the last round, Roy Hodgson (the underdogs’ manager of the season) takes his unlikely squad to the Stadio Olimpico for a high-profile match which the internationally-groomed coach could never had dreamed of.
The big news for Fulham surrounds the absence of Danny Murphy through suspension, while Nicky Shorey is cup-tied for the trip to Ukraine, having already featured for Aston Villa in early rounds of the competition. That should see Stephen Kelly slot into a defensive role as he did against the Ukrainians, while Jonathan Greening or Bjorn Helge Riise may be asked to fill in for Murphy in the centre of the park.
Aside from those issues, Fulham should have a full squad to choose from, allowing the west Londoners to field almost their strongest spine possible with Mark Schwarzer, Brede Hangeland and Aaron Hughes all at the back, Chris Baird and Dickson Etuhu sitting in front of the defence, while Damien Duff and Zoltan Gera offer support from midfield to the Cottagers’ lone and prolific striker, Bobby Zamora.
With that said, this match should by all historical accounts be a David versus Goliath occasion. Yet the present stats point to a far more balanced last 16 tie, with Fulham carrying the honourable record of two wins and two draws on their Europa League travels this season, while they have only failed to score once in their last 13 European away ties.
It is statistics such as these which should give Fulham, their fans and punters plenty of pre-match optimism. (Back Fulham or the draw at 2.32.)
101gg predicts: Juventus 2 – Fulham 1 (6.29)