If José Mourinho demonstrated last night that he is the best football coach in the world following Inter Milan’s exciting defeat of Barcelona, Roy Hodgson will be hoping to show he ain’t no has-been either by guiding Fulham past Hamburg tonight.
There are many comparisons to be drawn between Mourinho and Hodgson. Both have managed Inter, both are pragmatic coaches whose sides are hide to beat and, if Fulham win tonight, both will have reached a European final the hard way this season – after knocking out the holders and various other giants along the way.
Mourinho’s men had to overcome a strong Chelsea side in the first knockout round and face Barça, who are unquestionably the best team on the Continent, twice in the group stage and twice again in the semi-finals. Though they beat the World and European club champions just once in those four matches, they beat them when it mattered most – and last night’s 1-0 defeat – which was enough to see them scrape through to the final 3-2 on aggregate – was all the more impressive for the fact that it was achieved mostly with ten men, after the harsh first-half dismissal of Thiago Motta.
Credit must go to those ten men, for battling like Trojans against the seemingly irrepressible Blaugrana – but most of the credit must go to Mourinho – who has awoken a sleeping giant.
Hodgson’s men Fulham have also overcome incredible odds to reach this tantalising stage. They are one step away from a first ever European final after knocking out the holders Shakhtar Donetsk, the German champions Wolfsburg and most impressively Italian giants Juventus. The Juve game was particularly remarkable as they lost 3-1 in Turin, went 1-0 down after two minutes of the return leg but somehow scored four goals to win 5-4 on aggregate in one of the most staggering comebacks in the history of European football.
Factor in Hodgson’s budget, playing squad and the fact that when he took over at the club three years ago they were shoo-ins for relegation and Old Roy’s can only be described as Herculean. Now the Cottagers are on the cusp of a European final and will be crossing their fingers that Bobby Zamora, interviewed here, shakes off his troublesome Achilles injury to add to the seven goals has managed in the competition so far.
The worry for Hodgson is that Hamburg’s Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Mladen Petrić are both back from injury, and Fulham also don’t have the cushion of an away goal. But all is not sweetness and light for the Germans either – they sacked their coach on Monday after a 5-1 hammering by Hoffenheim. Like last night’s Inter match, the clash at the Cottage is going to be tense. Hopefully, not quite that tense, though.
The Inter defeat was agonising for Barcelona, who dominated possession but couldn’t find a way past the Italians’ solid defensive wall, until Gerard Piqué made things interesting with five minutes to go. But it was even more agonising for those of us who had backed Inter at the start of the tournament at 28/1 and were deliberating whether or not to lay any of it off on Betfair.
In fact with 10 minutes to go, the finger was hovering over Bodog’s ‘1-0 to Barcelona’ Correct Score market, which was 6/1 and rising as the Spaniards laid siege to the Nerazzurri goal. Barça had to score, Piqué did. I’d missed the boat again. Bollocks! Knew I should have backed it. In fact, if Bojan’s last-minute ‘winner’ hadn’t been disallowed my cat would not have been spared. A ghost handball was spotted – and this punter’s money and cat survived to live another day.
Tonight, another close match can be expected. Hamburg have a good away record, having scored eight in their last three European away matches, but Fulham are tight at the back, and have the tendency to do just enough to scrape through. Follow it on Channel 5 and in-running with your online bookmaker of choice. Otherwise, 1-0 looks favourite at a best-priced 13/2 with Bodog. Good luck, Fulham.