Fulham's Europa League dream

By David Garrido
Newsbeat sports reporter

Published
Image source, PA
Image caption,
Bobby Zamora scored six goals in the competition in the run up to the final

Let's face it - the Europa League is nowhere near as glamorous as the Champions' League.

Some people call it the Mickey Mouse Cup, or simply the Big Vase, because that's what the trophy looks like. It doesn't even have any handles.

While teams will sweat blood and tears to finish in the top four and get into the Champions' League, the race for seventh place at the end of the 2008-09 season was a bit of a joke.

No-one really wanted to qualify for the Europa League because it was thought to be an unwelcome distraction the following season.

Oh how wrong we were. The tournament that was previously known as the UEFA Cup has provided one of the stories of the season for Fulham… and it needed total commitment from the word go.

Not the sexiest start

Footballers never like having their summer holidays cut short, so instead of sunning themselves in Florida or Tenerife, Roy Hodgson's squad might have been a bit miffed to find themselves in Lithuania for their third qualifying round first leg against total minnows FK Vetra back in July 2009.

Not the sexiest start to their European adventure, admittedly. They could never have imagined still being in the competition ten months later.

Having got past Vetra and Russia's Amkar Perm (not a made-up name) in the play-offs, Fulham were then drawn in a hellish-looking group with FC Basel, Roma and CSKA Sofia, all of whom had played in the Big Cup, or Champions' League.

Hodgson maintained that the Europa League was at the bottom of his priority list, so no-one batted an eyelid when Fulham looked on their way out.

They needed to win in Switzerland to reach the knockout stages, but incredibly they did just that.

'Different kettle of fish'

Another toughie awaited in the last 32 against the holders, Shakhtar Donetsk, which involved a tricky trip away for the second leg.

But Brede Hangeland scored in Ukraine and produced one of his best performances to guide them through.

Juventus in the round of 16 was a different kettle of fish - the team who were twice European champions won comfortably 3-1 at the Stadio delle Alpi, and then an early away goal looked to have killed off the tie.

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Image caption,
Fulham fans have watched the roller-coaster ride with baited breath

But that's when Fulham came of age.

A sending-off for Juve's Fabio Cannavaro was a stroke of luck, Zoltan Gera's two goals got the hosts back into it, and Clint Dempsey's chip eight minutes from time completed the most astonishing of turnarounds.

The noise was deafening, they'd never seen anything like it down by the River Thames. Craven Cottage had become "Fortress Fulham".

Quarter-final opponents Wolfsburg proved harder to break down, but a 2-1 home win set up an intriguing second leg in Germany. Bobby Zamora grabbed his sixth goal in the competition to seal the victory.

And so to a first-ever European semi-final. After a goalless draw in Hamburg, it was back to the Cottage for another nervy night.

The Germans got the away goal, and again it looked like curtains for Fulham, but no. This time, it was Simon Davies who started the comeback, and Gera clinched it.

At the final whistle, cue more pandemonium - fans jumping around, complete strangers hugging each other.

And all of that has led to this - a first European final in Fulham's 131-year history. From 192 teams at the very beginning, we've now only got two left.

Their opponents are Atletico Madrid, who knocked out Liverpool in the last four.

No matter the result, it's been quite some run but having got this far, those hardy Fulham fans who've made the trip from south west London will be desperate not to fall at the final hurdle.

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