Club Focus – Fulham – A very Italian preview

For the neutral – for whom Craven Cottage even has a section allocated – hoping to see an exciting FA Cup tie with sparkling displays from any number of on-form strikers, Saturday’s match with Tottenham just did not deliver.

Looking more closely, it was less about under performing front men as it was fine defending throughout by both sides. The way the game played out certainly suited Roy Hodgson more than his opposite number as, despite Spurs seeing a fair bit of the ball, Mark Schwarzer was only really troubled on two occasions. The back four, along with Dickson Etuhu, and wingers Damien Duff and Simon Davies, defended doggedly – Duff making himself especially useful by doubling up on the threatening Gareth Bale. It is this mindset which makes Fulham such a tough side to break down, particularly at home, and has frequently been the key this season to levelling the playing field when the Whites face more illustrious opposition – which by looking at the talent available to either side, Spurs arguably are. There was nothing to choose between Tottenham – armed with the currently prolific Roman Pavlyuchenko and Peter Crouch fresh from two international goals – and Fulham at the weekend, which has been the case on several occasions this season when, on paper, outsiders would expect the Cottagers to perhaps be under pressure.

And the distinguished opponents keep coming. Having seen off a superb Shakhtar Donetsk side in the last round of the Europa League, the reward – a trip to the historic city of Turin – has already come around, the Round of 16 match kicking off on Thursday evening. Again, Fulham’s latest European opponents boast some marvellous talent in their side, but Hodgson will be eyeing this cup tie as an opportunity to once again beat the Italians at their own game. Renowned for being a league which focuses on cautious, possession football, Serie A is where Hodgson’s nous for steadying clubs and turning them into successful, well-oiled machines first became apparent 15 years ago. He guided a struggling Inter Milan side into the UEFA Cup places, before finishing third in the league and reaching the final of Europe in his first and only full season. His achievements at Fulham eclipse even what he managed in Italy, and he returns on Thursday intent on reminding those on the peninsula of what he accomplished, and how – with grit, teamwork, and neat passing football. A draw would go down as an upset, but should the attacking section of the team play better than it did against Spurs, a win is by no means out of the question.

Unfortunately, Jonathan Greening is not as adept at carving open defences as Danny Murphy, so while the defensive aspect of Hodgson’s tactic worked as well as could be hoped at the weekend, the other important feature, unlocking the opposition to create chances, was absent. In the Europa League particularly, this creative spark has combined with lethal finishing, so Fulham need not fear anyone, and nor will they be so roundly written off as they were prior to the humbling of the Ukranian side. The FA Cup game turned into a perfect dress rehearsal for how Fulham will most likely play against Juventus, with the only downside to this defensive outlook being that the Old Lady will be more aware than most teams left in the competition of how to engage efficient, sturdy opposition. The Whites, however, can take comfort from how they performed in both fixtures against Roma, particularly in the match at the Stadio Olimpico where they outplayed the side from the capital until the harsh sending off of Erik Nevland decided the outcome. The Romans are currently eight points better off in the league than Juve, so Fulham will know from previous experience they are in with a good shout of the quarter-finals.

Even if at times throughout his managerial career Hodgson has faced criticism for a lack of goalscoring threat from teams under his tutelage, in football, and especially two-legged knockout competitions such as this phase of the Europa League. In the Delle Alpi, a stadium filled with footballing history, not losing will be the Whites’ priority. For, if that happens, at Craven Cottage by the Thames, Fulham on their day are capable of beating near enough anyone.

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