PREVIEW: ATLETICO MADRID - FULHAM
Clint Dempsey and the Cottagers head back to Hamburg's Nordank Arena for their Europa League final date with Atletico Madrid, putting the cap their astonishing season that has earned both team and coach plaudits.
As they began their campaign in late-July of last summer in Lithuania's capital of Vilnius, few would have expected the Cottagers to find themselves as one of the two teams vying for the trophy nearly ten months later in Hamburg.
Their spectacular run has taken them throughout Europe where they have knocked off several favorites in the competition including the current holders, two reigning league champions, the heartbroken occupants of the final stadium, and one of the most decorated teams on the continent.
Dempsey's certain appearance, whether it be from the start or in a second-half substitute role as he was utilized by head coach Roy Hodgson in the semifinal against Hamburg, will represent the first-ever appearance in a European final for an American player.
The two-legged 1997 UEFA Cup final between Inter Milan and Schalke saw a pair of German-born, American-capped players make bench for the German team, however both Thomas Dooley and David Wagner failed to take the field in Schalke's victory.
This also marks Hodgson's second chance at European glory, as he was coincidentally at the helm of Inter for their failed attempt in 1997. Despite their previously minor participation on the continental stage, a pair of Cottagers have also stepped onto the field for European finals, with keeper Mark Schwarzer having come up on the wrong end of Middlesbrough's 4-0 UEFA Cup loss to Sevilla in 2006 and Danny Murphy having successfully lifted the trophy with Liverpool five years prior.
Hodgson received special honor in being affirmed as the League Managers Association's manager of the year on Monday in recognition for guiding his team to the brink of European glory in spite of their disappointing 12th-place finish.
Their Spanish opposition Atletico Madrid have suffered through a highly difficult season, languishing at the bottom of the La Liga standings for much of the early part of the season and headed at best for a ninth-place finish in the league.
The nevertheless could secure an unusual double as a consolation prize for the season, as they are also still in the running for the Copa del Rey in Spain, with their final against Sevilla occurring one week after their clash with Fulham.
Heaping adding pressure onto the Cottagers plate was the announcement on Tuesday that England had dropped out of the top three of UEFA's Fair Play competition thereby losing a place in next season's Europa League. As Fulham was previously next in line to take that spot should they come up short in Hamburg, a victory over the Spanish team is now their only route back to Europe as their league finish was far from sufficient.
Both Hodgson and Atletico coach Quique Sánchez Flores had the luxury of resting many of their most important players during the previous weekend, however Hodgson still has slightly more significant injury concerns leading up to the game.
Even though he will hardly miss forward Andrew Johnson who has not featured in the knockout round due to a knee injury, the participation of leading team scorer Bobby Zamora remains in doubt after he was forced to miss practice on Tuesday as he races against time to recover from an Achilles injury.
Otherwise, Fulham looks to be full strength for the encounter, as Damien Duff appears recovered from a calf injury, while both John Pantsil and Bjřrn Helge Riise seem to be in good shape after being forced out of Sunday's loss at Arsenal with minor issues.
Flores has his first-team regulars rested and fully healthy, and will only be without backup keeper Sergio Asenjo due to a serious knee injury he suffered over the weekend while deputizing for the rested David de Gea.