If, eight months ago, somebody had declared that there would be two English clubs left in the Quarter Finals of the Europa League come 1st April, most people would have presumed those two sides to be Aston Villa and Everton. But no, the two teams left fighting out what used to be the UEFA Cup, are Liverpool and Fulham. Honestly, no April Fools!
Liverpool started the season in the main draw of the Champions League but were suprisingly knocked out of a first-round group which included Debrecen, Lyon and Fiorentina. As a result, they were sidetracked/demoted/drafted into the Europa League. Fulham meanwhile, have played every single round of Europe’s second biggest club competition, no failure, no demotion, just raw progress. The Cottagers had two two-legged premliminary rounds just to get into the main draw for the group stages of the Europa League and when the draw for Group E was announced as comprising FC Basel, CSKA Sofia and Roma, few backed the boys in black and white to progress any further.
The two teams’ paths to the quarter finals have contrasted totally this season, as has the public’s perception of the clubs’ managers. Rafa Benitez started the season confident that his side could mount a genuine challenge for the Premiership table. After a shocking first half of the 09/10 season and the aforementioned premature Champions League exit, the Spaniard was being tipped for the chop, but remained bullishly optimistic regarding his team’s hopes of a top-four finish (and top flight European football the following year). Thankfully for Benitez, results have picked up in 2010, but Liverpool remain sixth in the table and four points off Tottenham in fourth. As the season has drawn out, rumours of him leaving in the summer for Juventus, la Vecchia Signora, have escalated considerably.
On the other hand, Roy Hodgson at Fulham can do no wrong. When he took charge of Fulham, the club seemed destined for relegation to the Championship, but two seasons and a new-look squad later, the West London side are sitting pretty in the Europa League with Hodgson having masterminded their way past Roma, reigning-holders Shakhtar Donetsk and Juventus already. In the Premiership, his team have guaranteed their top-flight status and have never looked in danger of dropping into the relegation dogfight.
Neither of these two old English clubs are by any means certain to progress to the semi-finals. Liverpool face Benfica and Fulham contest German champions Wolfsburg. One gets the impression that no matter what the result by the end of the second leg, Hodgson will be revered by Fulham fans for years to come. Benitez, in contrast, will be feeling the heat, the weight of expectation and just about any other cliche used to describe the feeling of having to manage a team to victory in a climate of impending doom. A sixth placed Premiership finish and a loss in the quarter finals of the Champions Europa League, would surely not be enough of a return for Liverpool’s American owners.
Liverpool Football Club will forever have European football in the blood. Fulham are new to it all and have a squad which is worth a fraction of that of the Merseysiders’. Will Fulham and Roy Hodgson be feeling the pressure tonight, in unfamiliar, unchartered quarter-final waters? Maybe. But, for other reasons entirely, the situation up north is far more tense.