It is easy to forget that this season’s Europa League was in its inaugural year. After picking up an undesirable yet understandable reputation as the Champions League ‘sinferior little brother, Michel Platini oversaw the rebranding of what we once called, with a pejorative sneer, ‘the UEFA Cup’. The Europa League has a parallel structure to the Champions League, and will be hoping to build on an impressive start this year by capturing some of its glamour too.
The Road to the Final
Europe’s secondary competition has a structural problem, in that just as it reaches the knockout stage there is an influx of refugee teams which have been eliminated from the Champions League. The teams who’ve fought to come that far, whilst pleased to have the big sides involved, doubtless feel a little resentful. This year’s final was a microcosm of that conflict, as Roy Hodgson’s Fulham, a side that began their Europa League campaign way back in the summer, came up against Atletico Madrid.
Fulham arrived at the Final after a rollercoaster ride taking them past Juventus, holders Shaktar Donetsk and hosts, Hamburger SV. The tie with Juventus will be held up by many as the competition’s most memorable. After conceding an early goal in the second leg, Fulham required a foul goal haul to qualify. They promptly delivered it, with American Clint Dempsey’s glorious chip proving to be the clincher.
In the semis Fulham faced Hamburg, who will have been devastated to have lost, what with the final being held at their own impressive arena.
Atletico Madrid’s route was less convincing but similarly daunting, taking in trips to some of Europe’s most intimidating stadiums in ties against Liverpool and Galatasaray. Atletico’s run to the final was typified by draws and taking huge advantage of the away goals rule. Their crucial goal at Anfield in the tie that will probably define their season was scored by Diego Forlan – the Uruguayan returning to haunt the Liverpool fans after a match-winning performance on that turf in his otherwise forgettable United days.
Roy Hodgson’s Fulham team has been assembled at little cost but with a great deal of care. Australian goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer was afforded plenty of time to shine by a less than watertight Middlesbrough defence, but his Bosman move to London has revealed a keeper who is able to organise as well as produce match-winning acrobatics. Bigger clubs will regret not taking a plunge to sign one of the Premier League’s best stoppers.
The defence is built around centre-half Brede Hangeland, who was managed by Hodgson during his spell at Norwegian club Viking. Hangeland moved on to enjoy a fine spell at Copenhagen, but answered the call when Hodgson moved to sign him in January 2008. The 6’5” defender has formed a formidable partnership with one-time Aston Villa cast-off Aaron Hughes, and will be in demand from the Premier League’s leading clubs once again this summer.
The supporting cast of defenders, the likes of Paul Konchesky, John Pantsil and Chris Baird, are typified by a reliability and willingness to play a disciplined role in Hodgson’s tactical machine.
That focus on teamwork is carried in to midfield. Many feared the loss of the talismanic Jimmy Bullard from the Fulham engine-room would prove catastrophic, but he’s been more than sufficiently replaced by journeyman Nigerian Dickson Etuhu. Etuhu doesn’t have Bullard’s ability to shoot from range or deliver from a dead-ball situation, but more than makes up for that with his physical strength and discipline in the holding role.
If Etuhu provides the graft, the craft comes from veteran Danny Murphy. Much like Cesc Fabregas of Arsenal or Paul Scholes at Manchester United, Murphy sets Fulham’s tempo, dictating their play with metronomic precision. It is no surprise that Murphy was linked with a call-up for the World Cup this summer – his performances this season have matched the form of his Liverpool days.
The flair has come from the likes of Zoltan Gera, Clint Dempsey, and Simon Davies. But even these exponents of supportive attacking play have had to abide by their defensive responsibilities: in Hodgson’s regime, there are no luxury players.
Upfront they have been without record signing Andy Johnson for much of the season, but the goalscoring burden has been picked up with gusto by previously unfancied Bobby Zamora. With his strength and ability to shield the ball, Zamora has become vital in helping Fulham retain possession and create chances. He is also one of football’s true two-footed players, saying he prefers his left boot for accuracy but his right for power.
Atletico are an antithetical outfit to Fulham’s pragmatists: they are all attacking artistry. Take their lead striker, Diego Forlan: once a laughing stock in English football, La Liga has made him a global star. When Forlan was signed from Villarreal he was charged with the nigh-impossible talk of replacing El Nino, Fernando Torres. However, the consistency of both his performances and his goals have seen him win the fans’ hearts. History may see him as this tournament’s defining force.
Such is Forlan’s prominence that one can easily forget his strike partner is also one of the world’s top attacking talents: Diego Maradona’s son-in-law, Sergio Aguero. It has been argued that Aguero’s talents, like those of Torres before him, may require a grander stage on which to flourish. One wonders what heights he might hit if a mooted move to Chelsea comes about this summer.
There is a similar threat out wide too, coming principally from Portugese veteran Simao and a revived Jose Antonio Reyes, who finally seems to have recaptured the form that inspired Arsenal to pay a whopping £17m for him all those years ago. A series of personal and injury problems have hampered his progress since then, but at Atletico he is once again playing with the bull-fighting flourish that was characteristic of his younger self.
Tomas Ujfalusi and Antonio Lopez have provided know-how and continuity at the back, but this is an Atletico side set up primarily to attack. With such obvious clashes in style between the two competitors, the final was eagerly awaited.
The Final Itself
I’m not going to compose a full match report – that will be done elsewhere and undoubtedly better by other contributors to the site. What I will say is that in this final, only Fulham truly lived up to their billing. Their display was one of the character and commitment we have come to expect, whilst Atletico’s didn’t have the fluency or vibrancy we had hoped would be on display. Not that it affected the result too much.
Diego Forlan’s goal, two minutes from the end of extra-time, settled the contest at 2-1 to Madrid. The difference between two tiring teams was the firepower Madrid could call on. With Zamora struggling with an achilles problem that removed his chances of a World Cup spot, the totemic Fulham striker was withdrawn on the hour. Madrid, however, were able to leave the pair of Aguero and Forlan on, and they combined to win the tie.
As Fulham’s brave heroes sank to the floor, Roy Hodgson calmly shook the hands of his staff. The LMA’s Manager of the Season has achieved wonders this year, and a late defeat on such a big stage should not be allowed to mar that.
“Their two front players were very good throughout the game but we gave them as good as we got and it looked like it was heading for penalties”said Hodgson. “We were looking very comfortable throughout long periods of the game and it’s a real shame to get so close and miss out. I could not be more proud of the players. This performance in many ways sums up what we are about at Fulham. Everyone watching on the TV and here in Hamburg will realise we gave everything we had. We go a goal down and fight back to take it to extra-time. That shows what we are about and I think the fans will realise we’ve done the very best we can.”
Defeat in the final marks the end of Fulham’s hopes for European qualification for next season, and one wonders if Hodgson’s team may now begin to break up. The manager himself is reportedly a target for Liverpool – Fuham’s fairytale resurgence may have ended, but his could yet continue.
Atletico, meanwhile, were left to celebrate winning a major European competition for the first time in nearly 40 years. The great underachievers have hauled themselves back on to Europe’s podium, and Madrid will be rocking with the celebrations for some time to come.
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