A trip to Old Trafford to face the best player in the Premier League on current form, sandwiched in between the two legs of arguably the biggest tie in Fulham’s history was hardly a game to expect any points from. In truth, the 3-0 defeat does not hurt all that much. The fans’ minds are already elsewhere.
No defence has the ability to stop Wayne Rooney, let alone a Whites side, away from home and sans-Brede Hangeland for much of the second half. The fact that all three Manchester United goals came in the second half suggest a last-45 capitulation, but in reality both halves were even, in that United pressurised constantly, with the home side’s force inevitably telling – Mark Schwarzer, as well as he played, cannot possibly keep everything out. Yes, Bobby Zamora was in Nemanja Vidic’s pocket the entire game, Danny Murphy let his hatred of the Red Devils get the better of him, and all tested wingers – Simon Davies, Clint Dempsey and Damien Duff – failed to make an impact on proceedings. But this was Fulham away from home, where they have not won in the league since day one, against a 30-goal forward. The winnable game comes this Thursday evening.
While getting soundly beaten by a far better side does not teach many lessons, one thing Fulham must improve upon against Juventus is how to deal with the big man/little man combination, which Roy Hodgson himself likes to implement. Alessandro Del Piero, like Rooney, hit two goals at the weekend, and if selected against the Whites will pose a very similar threat. Likewise, the probable starter David Trezeguet has similar attributes to Sunday’s man of the match, Dimitar Berbatov. Even when Hangeland was playing, Berbatov frequently got the better of him, which is no easy task, and Trezeguet’s threat was all too clear in the first leg in Turin. Having said that, Hodgson’s team has two completely different sides to it – one has just nine points from their league travels, and the other has an exceptional home record. It is the latter that means Fulham are not out of the Europa League, as a 2-0 win is certainly attainable. This solid home record includes a shut-out of Rooney, no goals for most big men – such as Peter Crouch – and a remarkable nine goals conceded in 14 league fixtures. Another clean-sheet against the Italians and two goals is a manageable achievement, and the players can again look at the Old Lady’s most recent league game as their inspiration.
Del Piero got his two goals, yes, but at the other end they let in as many as the Whites did. But whereas Fulham suffered a very expected defeat to the champions of England, Juventus dropped two points against the team at the bottom, who are four points from safety. If Siena can put three past Juve’s third-choice goalkeeper, then the Whites should be able to grab a couple. However, as discussed, the clean-sheet is the priority. Zamora has scored plenty in the tournament so far, and Zoltan Gera has been very impressive, and while the recent lack of goals has been a concern these blanks have been drawn mainly away from home. Back at Craven Cottage Fulham have not been goal-shy, and they have been very hard to break down.
Nicky Shorey will again be replaced by Paul Konchesky, and whether the former West Ham defender can find his feet quicker than he did in Turin could be vital to the Whites’ chances. His rustiness last Thursday combined with his teammates’ shocking set-piece marking to gift the advantage to the Italians, but this week’s fixture is set to be a completely different story. The away-day enigma does not look likely to be cracked any time soon, but on Thursday it is Fulham in their fortress banging on the door of the visitors. To knock it down, Zamora will need to be more clinical when provided with a chance. Against United he had a more-than-half chance in the first 45 minutes which was comfortably missed, before a golden opportunity fell his way in the second to level the scores. Somehow he allowed the less-than rapid Vidic to catch up and win the ball, and if he, or indeed any of his teammates, misses a similar chance against Juventus then the Italians will begin to shut up shop early, as only they know how.
Whichever way the result goes, a full Cottage will witness what could be the biggest night in the club’s history.