First Europa League final has a familiar feel

May 12, 2010

SOCCER-EUROPA/The first Europa League season, following its rebranding from UEFA Cup, draws to a close with a final line-up no-one would have expected here in Hamburg, but still, there is a familiar feel heading into this match.

Fulham’s roller coaster ride is reminiscent of the journey made by Spain’s Alaves, when they made it all the way to the final in 2000-01.

The final that year was in Dortmund, a three-hour drive down the A1 from Hamburg, and ultimately the underdogs came up short, losing in sudden-death extra-time to Liverpool.

You could make a case for Atletico Madrid being the rough equivalent of that Liverpool team nine years ago. Liverpool’s European glories looked a little faded back then: they had never so much as qualified for the Champions League at that stage and were being thoroughly overshadowed by Manchester United.

Atletico don’t quite have the same European pedigree but they have always regarded themselves as big stage players, having won the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1962 and lost three other European finals.

These days they remain in the shadow of their richer neighbours, having won their last piece of silverware when they completed a league and cup double in 1996. This could be the first part of another double, with a Copa del Rey final to come, and they are determined to enjoy their return to the spotlight. As Liverpool discovered in the semi-finals, they are a streetwise team, with skillful players who have been around a long time and know a thing or two about killing off a game when they hold a lead.

As for Fulham,  who knows how they will deal with the pressure of their first major European final? They have upset expectations so often that they will feel anything is possible. When Alaves played Liverpool in that 2001 final the Spaniards looked like being overwhelmed but they recovered from a 2-0 deficit early in the game to give the English side a real fright.

Can Fulham go one better? According to Danny Murphy, the Fulham captain who was on the winning Liverpool team in 2001, they will have a lot of people willing them on.

“Fulham are kind of everybody’s second favourite club because of our spirit,” he said. “We’ve overcome the odds and beaten so many good teams. I think supporters appreciate good football and we’ve certainly tried to play the right way. It’s nice to have the encouragement because it gives you the extra incentive to take the trophy home.”

PHOTO: Atletico Madrid’s Diego Forlan carries a ball during a training session ahead of their Europa League final soccer match against Fulham in Hamburg May 11, 2010. REUTERS/Phil Noble

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