Having got this far, Fulham must believe that they can beat Atletico Madrid in the Europa League final

Fulham v Atletico Madrid, Premier League, May 12, 2010

Fulham 2.10; Draw 3.30; Atletico Madrid 3.50

Atletico Madrid and Fulham lock horns on Wednesday night in Hamburg as they battle to become the winners of the inaugural edition of the Europa League.

Fulham’s passage to the final is the stuff dreams are made of. One of the more unfashionable clubs in London, the west Londoners have been living in the shadows of rivals Chelsea, Arsenal and even Tottenham for years now. But under Roy Hodgson, the toast of the media in England since negotiating the Cottagers’ unbelievable route to the final, Fulham are on the brink of joining the big leagues as they aim to scoop the biggest prize in the club’s history.

Quite simply, if you’d have lined up the likes of Roma, Basel, Shakhtar Donetsk, Juventus, Wolfsburg and Hamburg in front of Fulham at the start of the season, only the most die-hard Cottager could have argued that the Premier Leaguers would advance all the way to the final. But now is not the time to reflect on the past – that can wait until Thursday morning – as Fulham’s sole focus is to conjure up a game-plan that can upset Atletico in the showpiece final.

On Sunday at Arsenal, Fulham rung the changes and were duly thumped 4-nil by the Gunners. With the likes of Kagiso Dikgacoi, Bjorn Helge Riise, Erik Nevland and Stefano Okaka in the starting eleven, consensus opinion appears to have termed Fulham’s line-up at the Emirates as a second-string XI who were almost beaten before they stepped out on the pitch.

Yet worryingly for the Cottagers will have been the glut of first-teamers who did play against the Gunners. In particular, few excuses could mask the horrible error from keeper Mark Schwarzer that gave away the opener to Andrei Arshavin. Similarly, Chris Baird was unable to pass off the blame for scoring an own goal, while Clint Dempsey (3.20 to score) and Jonathan Greening had poor performances ahead of the biggest match of their careers.

Also of major concern to the Cottagers is the prognosis on striker Bobby Zamora (7.00 to score first) ahead of the final. Zamora, Fulham’s talisman this season with 16 goals and six assists in 41 matches, has been sidelined in recent weeks with an Achilles injury. While it is unlikely that 29-year-old Zamora will miss the biggest match of his life, it is also doubtful that the hitman will be on top form and Fulham could suffer as a result.

Rather than focus on single player participation though, where Roy Hodgson has been truly successful has been developing a “team first, individuals second” mentality. Accordingly, the experienced pros such as Danny Murphy and Damien Duff have been able to bond brilliantly with the likes of Brede Hangeland (11.00 to score), Dickson Etuhu and the exciting Zoltan Gera (3.50 to score) to form a well-oiled and effective unit that will prove highly competitive against the Rojiblancos.

While Fulham have stormed into the final on the back of a series of incredible and unlikely wins, Atletico appear to have stumbled into the final in a passage to the final has appeared far more subdued and seemingly fortunate.

At large the red and whites have had a miserable season, which kicked off in the worst possible manner with one win in their opening 11 league matches which saw former coach Abel Resino lose his job in October. Sanchez Flores was then installed and, though they remain a relatively lowly 9th in the league, their season has steadily improved at the back end of the campaign. That said, Atletico, with a run of three wins, three defeats and one draw heading into the final, have been notorious this season for being consistently inconsistent.

Much like Fulham, Madrid coach Quique Sanchez Flores rested a whole host of first teamers ahead of their last match at Sporting Gijon. Both leading striker Diego Forlan (5.50 to score first) and Kun Aguero (2.37 to score) were left on the sidelines, while midfielder Jose Antonio Reyes (3.75 to score) and Simao were both given the night off at the weekend.

While Atletico should have the attack refreshed them for Fulham, the problems for the Madridistas remain, as always, at the back. None of defenders Antonio Lopez, Mariano Pernia, Tomas Ujfalusi nor Alvaro Dominguez come highly recommended, although 19-year-old keeper David de Gea has proved to be somewhat of a revelation in his debut season in the first team.

Predicting who’ll come out on top in the final is really difficult. Atletico, by historical rights, deserved to be labelled the front-runner, however something feels very wrong in making the Rojiblancos favourites. Fulham, on the other hand, have repeatedly defied the odds, and no-one would bet against them doing the same in their final match of the season.

Expect goals. Expect mistakes. And hopefully Fulham can come out lifting the trophy.

101gg predicts: Atletico Madrid 1 – Fulham 2 (9.42)

Fulham 2.10; Draw 3.30; Atletico Madrid 3.50


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