Fulham have reason to be encouraged as injury-plagued Juventus arrive in the Europa League

Fulham v Juventus, Europa League last 16, second-leg, March 18, 2010

Fulham 2.33; Draw 3.25; Juventus 2.87

“It’s going to be a tough game, we know that, but we’ve got a good home record. We’ve beaten Manchester United and Liverpool at home this season and I see no reason why we can’t beat Juventus.” – Bobby Zamora.

While many look down on the Europa League with disdain, both Fulham and Juventus head into their second leg with the knowledge this will arguably be their game of the season so far. (Juventus are 5.50 to win the Europa League, Fulham are 51.00.) For the Londoners, few fans would have dreamt that come this point in the season they’d be welcoming one of the all-time great clubs in world football to the tiny, old-fashioned Craven Cottage. While for Italy’s Old Lady, a poor domestic and Champions League season has meant that the Europa League is their only chance of silverware and rescuing, what will otherwise be labelled, a season to forget.

It has been a rocky campaign0 for Juventus. The first half of the year was almost a total wash-out for the black and whites as former coach Ciro Ferrara watched on 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).

Yet, despite leading 3-1 from the first leg, Juventus definitely have some real issues to contend with before they take the field at Fulham.

Firstly, they arrive in slightly deflated form having thrown away a 3-nil lead against relegation cannon-fodder Siena last week in Serie A. Then, compounding Juve’s problems is a long long list of injuries that suggests Siena’s comeback was no fluke. (1.99 to be over 2.5 goals, 1.78 to be under.)

First-choice goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and his under-study Alex Manninger have both been ruled out with thigh injuries, meaning third-choice keeper Antonio Chimenti is in line to make his UEFA club debut. Elsewhere, Giorgio Chiellini, Martin Caceres, Amauri, Sebastian Giovinco and Michele Paolucci are also injured, while central defender Nicola Legrottaglie is suspended.

Such absenses leave Juventus more than lightweight at the back, and the Italians will be concerned that they will line up at Fulham with the likes of Zdenek Grygera (who had a shocker against Siena) in their defence.

Further forward, question marks remain over the ability of Alessandro del Piero and David Trezeguet to really pull their weight at this level anymore, while back-up striker Amuari has been in awful form throughout the season having notched just five goals in 23 appearances. On the plus side, Vincenzo Iaquinta has recently returned to the squad after a long period on the sidelines, and all of a sudden the Bianconeri have a few more options up top.

Better news for Juve is found in their midfield, with Diego having finally looked to have found his stride in recent weeks after his transfer to Turin last summer from Bremen. Antonio Candreva has also been in top form of late, while Felipe Melo can join up with Momo Sissoko in the middle of the park after the Brazilian missed the first leg through suspension.

Turning to Fulham, they will surely be encouraged by the problems engulfing their Italian opponents considering the Cottagers are without a win in their last five matches themselves.

Hodgson’s injury woes have eased somewhat after Clint Dempsey and Paul Konchesky returned in Italy in midweek, although Nicky Shorey and Stefano Okaka are unavailable for selection on Thursday night. The Cootagers also have Danny Murphy suspended after he picked up a red card in the Satdio Olympico.

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.

Having already beaten the likes of Shakhtar Donetsk and Basel, and having held Roma to a 1-all draw earlier in the competition, the pressure should be off Fulham against Juventus as they know that even if they exit the tournament now, they’ll do so with their heads held high. Romantics will hope that this may afford the Cottagers room to go out and express themselves, and should they bag the first goal of the night then perhaps their Europa League dream can continue to flourish even further.

101gg predicts: Fulham 2 – Juventus 1 (8.54)

Fulham 2.33; Draw 3.25; Juventus 2.87