Ten months on, Fulham prepare for final hurdle

Roy Hodgson's side enter the last lap of an energy-sapping season with Sir Alex Ferguson saluting their Europa League achievements
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The Independent Online

Fulham's season began in Australia, on one of those pre-season brand-developing tours which are supposed to sap a squad's energy.

Still in July, they then embarked on the season proper, in the third qualifying round of the Europa League against FK Vetra in the Baltic republic of Lithuania. Until now precedent has indicated clubs who start European competition this early fade in the spring.

Ten months and 31,000 miles from that initial match on the Gold Coast, including a 17-hour bus trip to Hamburg when an Icelandic volcano intervened, Fulham are still running hard. Thursday's comeback win over Hamburg in the Europa League semi-final was their 59th competitive match of a season which still has four fixtures to run, a club record. The last one will, of course, be against Atletico Madrid in the Europa League final in Hamburg on 12 May.

It is "unbelievable. Absolutely incredible." That was yesterday's verdict from Sir Alex Ferguson, who was speaking from bitter experience when he added, "when you are 1-0 down to a German team you say to yourself 'this is going to be hard'. But their comeback was fantastic. Brilliant.

"I heard people complaining about the quality of the performance but considering the amount of games they have played, he is doing well to get 11 players on the pitch every week. It's incredible. Roy's [Hodgson] squad can only be about 16 players. We played 58 last season and we thought it was a miracle. So he is manager of the year – no doubt about it – fantastic."

Ferguson, who has won four European trophies with Aberdeen and Manchester United, added: "Hopefully Fulham go on and win it now – but whatever happens I think what he has done this season is one of the best British club achievements of all time. Amazing to think that they started that tournament in July. July! Crickey, I was on the beach then."

Ferguson's admiration for Hodgson is shared within the Fulham squad. Simon Davies, who scored the equaliser, recalled the club's mood when Hodgson took over from Lawrie Sanchez in December 2007. "As a team we were really in a mess – we were struggling, conceding goal after goal. The first thing he worked on was our defensive shape, making us hard to beat and that carried us through to stay up and we have gone on from there."

Davies added: "It is hard to describe what an achievement it is to get a club like ours through to the Europa League final. The manager has done wonders. This season, he has rotated when he had to, made big decisions when they were needed. He has such a composure and he instils that composure into the team. When we go away, we are compact, can frustrate teams and are very hard to beat. However, we can also play some good football.

"To come back from 1-0 down says a lot about the character of this side because we kept playing for the team, not just ourselves. We have got a modest manager, and he wants us to be a modest team – we are always the underdogs, but that suits us."

They ought not be underdogs in the final. Atletico have a dangerous front pair in Sergio Aguero and Diego Forlan, the Uruguayan whose goal put out Liverpool, but are otherwise a modest team. They are 10th in La Liga and weaker than some of the teams Fulham have beaten, notably Shakhtar Donetsk.

Davies admitted the Fulham squad were pleased to meet Atletico rather than their domestic rivals. "While it is a shame it will not be an all-England final, I think the majority of lads would have wanted Madrid," he said. "We play Liverpool every year and playing Atletico Madrid will be something different for us, a great occasion."

It is a match Bobby Zamora, a key figure in Fulham's run, said he is "desperate" to be fit for. Zamora has been dogged by an Achilles tendon injury which is likely to require surgery in the summer and lasted less than an hour on Thursday.

"I am desperate to play so the next couple of weeks will be really important," Zamora said. He added: "The character has been there all through the competition – we did it against Juventus, which shows the spirit and desire we have in the squad. There is no point in playing all of these games if you are not going to give it your all."

It is a point supporters of other English clubs, notably Aston Villa, who sent a weakened team to Moscow last season, and Bolton, who fielded a reserve XI at Lisbon the previous year, might ponder. Certainly Fulham fans, aware as anyone that the club's debt to Mohamed al Fayed is unsustainable, and with Hodgson bound to be offered tempting jobs elsewhere, are enjoying their moment. Fulham have applied to Uefa for more tickets after their 12,400 allocation went within hours. Flights from London to Hamburg rocketed in price before also selling out. Like so many of Fulham's fixtures this season, it will be an "I was there" occasion.

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