Fulham revel in Europa League limelight

Last Updated: Wednesday, March 31, 2010 - 10:41

London: Fulham are billing it as the biggest night in the club`s history but for Liverpool it is painful reminder that they are now operating amongst the also-rans -- welcome to the Europa League quarter-finals.

Fulham take on German champions VfL Wolfsburg on Thursday in the home first leg still trying to come to terms with their astonishing 4-1 second leg victory over Juventus in the last round.
The journey that began against Vetra Vilnius last July and that has already involved 14 matches and a victory over holders Shakhtar Donetsk has been a heady one for Fulham fans and players unused to such adventure.

"They`ve done very well to get where they are, we`ve done very well to get where we are so it`s a meeting of fairly similar clubs and I`m looking forward to it," said Fulham coach Roy Hodgson, who has turned the club round completely after taking over when relegation seemed likely two years ago.

Defender Aaron Hughes said that everyone around the club was buzzing. "You get to this stage and you do start to think that anything can happen," he said. "Obviously it gets tougher the further you go but we haven`t got this far through luck - we`re here on merit."

Like Fulham, Wolfsburg are enjoying their best run in a UEFA competition, though they entered this one through the side door after their Champions League group-stage exit.
That was Liverpool`s route too and for fans who watched them win the Champions League in 2005 and reach the final in 2007, the Europa League is something of a comedown.

With their chances of securing Champions League football via the Premier League far from guaranteed as they face an uphill battle for fourth place, fans are reluctantly turning to the secondary competition, which they won in 2001, to give them something to cheer about.

The travel to Benfica on Thursday but their recent record against them is poor, having lost their last three meetings. The Lisbon club, who eliminated Olympique Marseille with a last-gasp goal in the last round, are brimming with confidence.

They beat Porto in the League Cup final then secured a six-point League lead with a win over second-placed Braga on Saturday.

The winners of that tie will play the winners of the all-Spanish match up between Valencia and Atletico Madrid.

Valencia, who won the UEFA Cup under Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez, should welcome back Spain striker David Villa after he sat out Saturday`s 3-0 defeat at Real Zaragoza.

He spent a night in hospital after receiving a blow to the head in last week`s 1-0 win over Malaga and was ordered to rest.

Atletico, who beat Valencia 4-1 in the league a month ago, are without in-form winger Jose Antonio Reyes and defender Juan Valera, who both picked up muscle injuries in Sunday`s 3-2 defeat at city rivals Real.

The other quarter-final sees Hamburg at home to Standard Liege, having got past another Belgian side, Anderlecht, in the previous round.

Hamburg will be without in-form midfielder Marcell Jansen who has sustained an ankle injury and will be out for several weeks, even putting his World Cup hopes in doubt.

Coach Bruno Labbadia is under mounting pressure to produce results after the northern German club have won only two of the last 10 league games, dropping to sixth place, and have managed only one point from their last three matches.

With the Europa final in Hamburg this year the club is desperate to redeem themselves for a disappointing Bundesliga season with a European title on home soil.

Bureau Report



First Published: Wednesday, March 31, 2010 - 10:41

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