Often taking a back seat to the more prestigious and lucrative Champions League, the Europa Cup (UEFA Cup) Final in Hamburg, Germany pits two teams who often are in the shadows of their wealthier and more successful neighbors. Though often scoffed at by the fans of their rivals, both Atletico Madrid and Fulham are not only the only clubs in their cities to be playing for a European prize but the only teams in their country vying for European honors.
Atletico Madrid, have been one of Spain’s more successful clubs having won both the league and domestic cups 9 times a piece as well the Cup Winners Cup back in the 70’s. Unfortunately this all pails in comparison to the achievements and trophies won by Real Madrid who have dominated Madrid, Spain and Europe for many decades.
Fulham have only been in the Premiership for 9 years and 16 years ago were languishing in the bottom of the 3rd division. In 1997 Mohamed Al-Fayed purchased the little London club and promised the fans that they would be in the Premiership in 5 years. 4 years later under the guidance of legendary french midfielder Jean Tigana, they reached the premier division of English football. Since being in the top flight they have only finished in the top 10 twice and usually spend this time of the year celebrating their narrow avoidance of relegation. In late December 2007, Fulham hired Roy Hodgson who rescued Fulham from relegation once again, (also thanks to some impressive play and goals from fan favorite Brian McBride) and has since lead Fulham to the FA Cup quarterfinals two years in a row and away from their yearly relegation battles. This year, they finished 12th in the league and after a series of incredible and impressive comebacks are in their first ever European cup final.
Both teams have beaten some very good teams in order to progress to the final. Atletico have beaten Sporting Lisbon, Valencia and most recently Liverpool to get to Hamburg, where as Fulham sent holders Shaktar Donetsk, Juventus and Wolfsburg packing en route to the final.
Both Quique Sanchez Flores and Roy Hodgson have made huge impacts on their clubs since being hired on as managers. Flores was a right back for Valencia for 10 years and won La Liga with Real Madrid in 1995. Shortly there after he retired and eventually replaced Rafa Benitez at Valencia as manager. He was there for a couple of years and then spent a year at Benfica before being hired in October 2009 as Atletico’s manager. Atletico Madrid started this season poorly and were knocked out of the Champions League after the group states. They will finish either 9th or 10th in the league but due to some changes implemented by Flores and some reversal in fortune Atletico have made it to both the finals of the Europa Cup and the Copa del Rey to played on the 19th.
Roy Hodgson wasn’t much of a football player as he could never break into first team football but as a manager he’s been all over the place. He’s managed teams in Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, Italy (Inter Milan) and in England as well as managed the national teams of both UAE and Switzerland. He’s won league titles in Sweden and Denmark as well as their domestic cup competitions. Last season he lead Fulham to their best ever finish in the EPL as they finished 7th and qualified for the Europa League. Through grit and determination, smart tactical substitutions and an incredible self belief, Fulham marched their way into the finals. For his efforts Roy Hodgson was just voted Manager of the Year by the League Managers Association and hopes to be the first Englishman to life a European trophy since Bobby Robson in 1997.
Players to Watch
Atletico Madrid are an attacking football team. Lead by Uruguayan and multiple Pichichi Trophy winner (given to the scorer of the most goals in the Spanish leagues), Diego Forlan and young Argentine forward Sergio Arguero; they can score goals from all over the field. Pacy Portuguese winger Simao and Reyes will be providing the balls to their forwards and their attack will be relentless. It will need to be as their defense is not up to much. Though they scored 57 goals this campaign they have let in 58. It would be a lot more if it wasn’t for young Spanish international keeper David de Gea, whose fine play has earned him a recent call up to Spains 30 man roster.
Fulham are a much more well balanced side and have a very strong spine. Australian keeper Mark Schwarzer has been playing out of this world and saved shot upon shot in the semi final. Hangeland and Pantsil anchor the defense and captain Danny Murphy runs the engine room. Duffs pace and crossing abilities will set up attacking midfielders Davies and Zoltan Gera. Bobby Zamora is the lone striker and Clint Dempsey has been coming on as a super sub and has often been the spark plug to Fulhams comebacks. Both Zamora and Duff face late fitness tests so Deuce might factor in as a starter.
Hopefully, both managers will keep to their exciting tactics that have taken them this far and if they do we should be line for a very entertaining game. Madrid will attack relentlessly but Schwarzer and the Fulham defense should be able to withstand the pressure. On the counter, Fulham will play it wide and attack the weaker Atletico defenders. If Fulham and Murphy especially, can contain Reyes and the rest of the Atletico playmakers, then the London side should come out winners for their very first European trophy.
Prediction – Fulham 3 – Atletico Madrid 1 (Deuce coming on to score the final goal)