For a match that boasted five goals there was a real lack of goalmouth action – the home crowd and players were most certainly just going through the motions in the first of three hindrances before the big one on May 12. The players that came in did enough to justify Hodgson’s decision to rest many of his starters, but this writer expects several more first-teamers to face Stoke tomorrow night – almost two weeks without playing a game of football having had to start two almost every week since the end of July would probably end up being detrimental to the team who are running on pure adrenaline. With that in mind, those first-teamers who didn’t start against West Ham should do so against Stoke, with the exception of Bobby Zamora whose fitness Cottagers fans will be sweating on until they hear the line-up in the Nordbank Arena. After last Thursday’s unforgettable European semi-final, Fulham fans could be forgiven for not knowing where Sunday’s victory put them in the league – 10th – and nor do they, with survival having been assured long ago, care much for anything other than following their players to the 19th game on this incredible journey.
Unfortunately for a side needing to retain match sharpness and still avoid picking up knocks that could keep them out of the biggest game of their career, Tony Pulis’ outfit is the last team anyone would want to face. Already Stoke have claimed the blood of Zamora in January’s league match – a quite shocking tackle from Abdoulaye Faye from which the England hopeful dislocated his collar bone, and their record against other Premier League clubs this season is only too well known. The fact is Hodgson will look to play a strong team against either Stoke or Arsenal, and the dilemma is choosing between which one is the best practice for Atletico Madrid – probably the Gunners for the flair they have available – and which one will leave enough time for recovery ahead of the final, with Sunday’s Emirates fixture a little too close for comfort to Wednesday night. Of course Hodgson, as he so frequently does, will utilise his squad as he sees best, and the Cottage faithful can rest assured they have one of the best possible leaders to prepare Fulham for their biggest match in history.
Organisation has been the key to this season’s European success, and the reward most likely is a place in next year’s competition. (Fulham currently sit top of the English fair play league and England sit third overall, which means, barring some stupid sendings off over the remaining fixtures, the Whites will again be representing England next year whether they win or not). It would have been easy for the players last Thursday to panic after Hamburg’s opener and to go for broke too early, but, and this is thanks to the manager, they kept their shape, kept structured and kept on playing football. Their just rewards followed in the euphoric seven-minute spell in which Simon Davies and Zoltan Gera took the roof of the Cottage. For the Whites to have any chance against a technically proficient Atletico side, every player must remember what to do. And with Hodgson in the dressing room, there is little doubt they will once again prove a very tough nut to crack indeed. And one of the toughest individual nuts in the side, Zamora, will be doing his utmost to make sure he is leading the line next Wednesday.
With Zamora still being touted to Fabio Capello for inclusion in the World Cup just six weeks away, maybe, just maybe, as the Hamburg fans so eloquently put it last Thursday, football is indeed coming home – to London’s oldest club. Has there been an English side in a European final that has the best wishes of almost every fan nationwide? Probably not, but whatever happens, the Whites (or Blues, going by the ghastly kit for the final) have done the country proud.