Liverpool may not be the only team going into tonight's Europa League semi-finals without their talisman. Fulham will this lunchtime give a fitness test to Bobby Zamora, who is every bit as important to Roy Hodgson's team as Fernando Torres is to Rafael Benitez's.
Hodgson is not one for hyperbole, or singling individuals out, but yesterday he found himself unable to avoid emphasising the importance of Zamora to his side's chances.
Zamora has a long-standing Achilles tendon problem which forced him to go off in the goalless first leg against Hamburg last week, and Hodgson initially said: "Injuries are part and parcel of football, if Bobby can't play we know we have others who can keep our play going." Yet for all the attributes of Clint Dempsey and Erik Nevland, his potential replacements, neither have Zamora's combination of presence and mobility, nor his current confidence in front of goal, and Hodgson reluctantly admitted: "I can't say that it doesn't matter, that we've got plenty of others who can go in and it won't affect us, that would be wrong."
Hodgson added it was the equivalent of Wayne Rooney not playing for Manchester United, Didier Drogba being absent for Chelsea, or Robin van Persie out at Arsenal. Such comparisons, which would have seemed ludicrous a year ago, are now valid. As Danny Murphy, Fulham's captain said: "Even though we are a team unit, without Bobby we would not be in the semi-final."
Zamora, said Hodgson, may need an operation this summer to clear up his injury. Should Zamora be called up for England's World Cup squad, a far from fanciful prospect, any operation would be delayed.
While Zamora was instrumental in the victories over Basle, Shakhtar Donetsk, Juventus and Wolfsburg which got Fulham this far, it is not a one-man team. Mark Schwarzer, Aaron Hughes, Damien Duff and Murphy are among other influential figures. As Murphy added: "There are no stars. Perhaps Bobby has become the star this season because of the goals he has scored, but if you ask people about Fulham they will say we will play as a team."
Tonight Fulham need only to win, or go through on penalties after another goalless draw to reach their first final since the FA Cup in 1975. For Murphy that would be more impressive than reaching the Uefa Cup final with Liverpool in 2001 (which Liverpool won). "This would be one of the greatest achievements of our history whereas at Liverpool they are talking about reaching the same final as a consolation. That puts it into perspective," he said.
Fulham, 40-1 outsiders at the start of the season, start as favourites tonight for the first time in the knock-out stages, not that Hodgson sees it that way. But while he spoke of his respect for the opposition's talent, resources and reputation, Hamburg, who host next month's final, are in some disarray. They have won twice in nine matches and sacked Bruno Labbadia, after Sunday's 5-1 defeat at Hoffenheim.
Ricardo Moniz has taken over as caretaker coach. The Dutchman's previous experience has been as an assistant or as a skills coach – in which capacity he worked with Murphy at Tottenham under Martin Jol. This is the first time he has been responsible for picking a senior team but while no one knows quite what to expect – Murphy said jokingly he hoped Moniz would come up with some bizarre and flawed tactical scheme – Hodgson did not anticipate major changes, nor did he see the switch as beneficial to Fulham.
Fulham recall John Pantsil for the suspended Chris Baird. That he is available is fortuitous: Hodgson had not anticipated the Ghanaian recovering this quickly from a cruciate injury and would have omitted him from the competition squad had a vacancy not occurred when Diomansy Kamara was loaned to Celtic.
Hamburg are without the dangerous Piotr Trochowski, who is banned, but will nevertheless hope to provide Ruud van Nistelrooy with better service than in the first leg.
If they do not Fulham should be heading back to Hamburg next month, this time by air, for a 19th and final Europa League cup tie.
The last time...
*Victory for Fulham tonight will put the West London side through to only the second major final in their 131-year history. The Craven Cottage club previously reached the FA Cup final as a Second Division outfit in 1975, losing 2-0 to West Ham United at Wembley with a team featuring the likes of Bobby Moore and Alan Mullery.
That Cup campaign began with a stutter as they took three matches to beat Hull City in the third round and four games to overcome Nottingham Forest. A 2-1 fifth round win at Everton put the London side through to a quarter-final at Carlisle, where Les Barrett scored the only goal of the game. A 120th-minute John Mitchell goal was then required to see off Birmingham in a semi-final replay at Maine Road as Alec Stock's side made it through.
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