Sunday 26 February 2017

Hodgson praises Fulham's spirit in face of arduous trek

Glenn Moore

AS Fulham's battlebus rolled into Hamburg yesterday and the players disembarked, staring at the filling skies, they 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, as Barcelona appeared to in Milan on Tuesday, 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, Fulham take on unexpected powers when playing at their own humble, but intimidating ground.

"It was a long journey," said Fulham coach Roy Hodgson. "It was not ideal preparation for a match against top-class opposition, but I'm pleased with the way the players accepted it.

"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 7in will have found the bus more uncomfortable than most, said the players had watched a lot of films, 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.

"They are favourites, and the fact the final is being being played here is a motivating factor, but it also brings extra pressure."

That is especially the case as Hamburg's domestic campaign has drifted since the winter break. They have won four times in 14 matches and a home defeat to Mainz last weekend left them 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 last weekend after an attack on a fan. The coach can also call upon Dutch defender Joris Mathijsen, Czech midfielder David Jarolim, German winger Piotr Trochowski and, most notably, Ruud van Nistelrooy.

Fulham, however, have shown in this campaign every opponent can be overcome, even Eyjafjallajokull. (© Independent News Service)

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