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Atletico Madrid v Fulham
2010 Europa League Final
Wednesday 12 May 2010
This week saw two underdog coaches stride out on to the turf at full-time to salute their fans. Both had achieved results that had taken their clubs to previously unimagined heights. Both were being hailed as strategic masterminds, and both, coincidentally, have an affiliation with Inter Milan.
And yet there the similarities end. For whilst Jose Mourinho and Roy Hodgson share a degree of tactical acumen, the Portugese lacks the Fulham manager’s most endearing quality: humility.
Hodgson is in danger of becoming the ‘Claude Makelele’ of the managerial world – a man so often heralded as “underrated” that his reputation disproportionately inflates – but it is hard to underplay the scale of his achievements with Fulham. For a club whose primary focus remains Premier League survival to be contesting a European final is nothing short of remarkable. The fact that the protagonist is such a deeply likeable man makes this story all the more heart-warming.
Fulham’s opponents on the 12th May will be Atletico Madrid. A tie between Atletico and Liverpool was always going to be close: the clubs have shared parallel seasons, hamstrung by financial problems as they tumbled out of the Champions League places and towards mid-table obscurity. For both teams, the Europa League represented a chance at redemption – an opportunity to end the season holding aloft Europe’s most prestigious wooden spoon.
Having been eliminated in extra-time, Liverpool now face the unenviable prospect of watching rivals Manchester United claiming a historic 19th league title, whilst they themselves slump to their lowest league position since 1999 – the year United claimed the treble.
It will have hurt the Anfield crowd all the more that their demise came at the hands of two players who failed to cut it in the Premier League, as a Jose Reyes cross was turned in by Diego Forlan. Atletico’s squad is littered with expensively assembled talent, and winning the Europa League may be their sole chance of keeping the likes of Forlan, Aguero and Simao on board for next season.
Aletico and Fulham are, in that respect, diametric opposites, the former loaded with individual talent but lacking organisation, the latter a unit greater than the sum of their parts. With the exception of Mark Schwarzer, it’s hard to pinpoint a Fulham player who could oust one of Atletico’s starting XI.
Forlan is a Uruguay international and former winner of La Liga’s Pichichi – Bobby Zamora, the Londoners’ equivalent, has risen from the lower leagues and is yet to win an international cap. Atletico tumbled in to the competition after being ejected from the Champions League, whilst the final at the Hamburg Arena will represent Fulham’s 19th fixture in the competition. That’s half a Premier League season. That kind of consistency cannot be a mere fluke, and Fulham will fancy their chances of causing yet another upset.
If they can end their marathon season by raising a trophy, humble Hodgson might have something else in common with Mourinho: he’d unquestionably be a Special One.