Fulham's battlebus rolled into Hamburg yesterday, the players disembarked, stared at the filling skies, and could have been forgiven for cursing their luck. Seventeen hours on a coach is no preparation for the biggest game in the club's history, and while it was broken up by an overnight stay in Munster a traffic accident on the autobahn yesterday added a frustrating three stationary hours to the journey.
Whether Fulham will lack sharpness as a result remains to be seen. What is certain is that they cannot approach tonight's Europa League semi-final first-leg believing they might. The task in the Nordbank Arena is to ensure they return to Craven Cottage next week with a place in the final still in their grasp. As Juventus found in the last round, and Manchester United and Liverpool discovered earlier this season, the Lilywhites take on unexpected powers when playing at their own humble, but intimidating ground.
"It was a long journey," said the Fulham coach Roy Hodgson. "It was not ideal and a match against top-class opposition will be a little harder for us; but I'm pleased with the way the players accepted it was not easy to get here due to something beyond everybody's control, and the way they made the most of the situation. I think our team spirit is good anyway, but these long journeys do test things out."
Mark Schwarzer, who at 6ft 4in will have found the bus more uncomfortable than most, said the players had watched a lot of films ("they all rolled into one," he said), drank fluids to keep hydrated, and enjoyed "three hours walking along the hard shoulder" during the jam. The goalkeeper added: "We are fighting an uphill battle with the trek we have made and it will be very tough for us, but we will do as well as we can." Next month's final is in this stadium and Schwarzer added: "They are favourites, and the fact the final is here is a motivating factor, but it also brings extra pressure."
That is especially the case as Hamburg's domestic campaign has drifted. They have won four times in 14 matches and have slipped to seventh in the Bundesliga. They are now struggling even to qualify for next season's Europa League, let alone return to the Champions League they won, in its previous guise as the European Cup, in 1983.
As a consequence Bruno Labbadia, who replaced Martin Jol at the start of the season when the Dutchman left for Ajax, has an uncertain future. Labbadia is expected to recall playmaker Paolo Guerrero who was suspended at the weekend after an attack on a fan and can also call upon Dutch defender Joris Mathijsen, Czech midfielder David Jarolim, German winger Piotr Trochowski and, most notably, Ruud van Nistelrooy. Fulham, though, have shown this season that every opponent can be overcome, even Eyjafjallajokull.