Can Fulham take advantage of Hamburg’s internal crisis to claim another major Europa League scalp?

Hamburg v Fulham, Europa League semi-final first leg, April 22, 2010

Hamburg 1.69; Draw 3.50; Fulham 5.25

Roma. Basel. Shakhtar Donetsk. Juventus. Wolfsburg. So, will Hamburg be next for European football’s surprise package Fulham?

At the start of this season’s Europa League, not even the biggest Fulham optimist would even joke that Roy Hodgson’s ragtag bunch of misfits would be in the semi-final of the competition. And more amazing perhaps, no-one would have dared dream that the Cottagers would be worthy of reaching this far in the tournament. Yet, after dispatching of European football’s toughest and most seasoned opponents Fulham are fully deserving of their moment in the spotlight and perhaps – just perhaps – they could cause one last upset and beat HSV. (Fulham are 5.75 to win the Europa League, Hamburg are 2.90.)

“In every round since the group stage we have looked at our opposition and thought: ‘By rights we are not supposed to be here. We are not supposed to get through to the next round.’ And that’s worked in our favour. We’ve gone about our business and done our job. We’ve had the self-belief even though we’ve had a lot of doubters.” – Mark Schwarzer.

Bobby Zamora, who has scored six goals in the competition this season, is Fulham’s key weapon, and should the former Brighton forward net his 20th goal in all competitions it would seem even more difficult for Three Lions coach Fabio Capello to leave the in-form England hitman out of his World Cup squad.

There is more good news for Fulham though with the return of several stars at just the right time. John Pantsil has been out since December with a knee injury but after playing a reserve game last week the defender may have to settle for a place on the bench. Elsewhere, Clint Dempsey could seal a place in the starting eleven after missing last weekend’s goalless draw with Wolves with a thigh injury, while Simon Davies returned to the team against Wolves and should get the nod to start the match on the right hand side.

Yet, rather than focus on single player participation, where Roy Hodgson has been truly successful has been developing a “team first, individuals second” mentality. Accordingly, the experienced pros such as Danny Murphy, Damien Duff and keeper Mark Schwarzer have been able to bond brilliantly with the likes of Brede Hangeland, Chris Baird, Dickson Etuhu and the exciting Zoltan Gera to form a well-oiled and effective unit.

Hamburg, who have the carrot of knowing that the Europa League final will be played at their home HSH Nordbank Arena on May 12th, will prove as tough as any opponent Fulham have faced so far in this season’s tournament.

But Hamburg do have their own internal problems to contend with. At the halfway point of the season, Hamburg sat fourth in the league, four points off the lead and seemingly on course for a Champions League berth as well as habouring hopes for the Bundesliga. Since, however, their domestic form has dipped sharply and they now lie in lowly seventh, a cool 15 points off pace-setters Bayern.

That has left many to question whether coach Bruno Labbadia made the right decision to bring in Ruud van Nistelrooy in the winter transfer window, as opposed to signing a quality defender to shore up their leaky backline. And in truth the criticism against Labbadia, which again grew louder last weekend when lowly Mainz ran out 1-nil visitors at Hamburg, is wider than the signing of RVN with fallouts at the club a constant factor this season.

As reported by Raphael Honigstein, “cack-handed attempts to act as a tough disciplinarian have seen [Labbadia] lose respect in the dressing room; Brazilian midfielder Zé Roberto publicly exposed the manager’s lack of authority when he came back a week late from his winter holidays. Since then, Labbadia has systematically alienated almost every player by making strange substitutions and bizarre tactical decisions. On Saturday, the crowd booed when captain David Jarolim, the last remaining supporter of Labbadia in the dressing room, was hauled off after 69 minutes for 20-year-old debutant Sören Bertram… The next day, Rost resigned from his post on the players council after a public rebuke from Labbadia. The 35-year-old had taken five team-mates to watch Clash of the Titans the night before the Mainz game. They were back in the team hotel before curfew but Labbadia wasn’t happy.”

With so much disruption at the club, many players are reported to want out this summer. And that may inspire Manchester City fans to tune into this match as German 21-year-old defender Jerome Boateng is mooted as being a likely target for the Citizens this summer.

Hmaburg arrive into this match with their fair share of injuries too, with Mladen Petric, Jose Paolo Guerrero, Marcell Jansen, Eljero Elia and Romeo Castelen all sidelined with injury.

Having witnessed Fulham reach this stage of the tournament and defy the boo-boys time after time, betting against the Cottagers upsetting the odds once again could be compared to being like the boy who cried wolf. Nevertheless, despite all their problems, Hamburg have quality sprinkled throughout their team, and a narrow German victory can be expected.

101gg predicts: Hamburg 1 – Fulham 0 (6.07)

Hamburg 1.69; Draw 3.50; Fulham 5.25