How do we know that another season of football is drawing to a close? No, it’s not because Dirk Kuyt is finally on the verge of needing a rest. It’s because a Thursday night is being looked forward to, almost half as much as Tuesday and Wednesday nights. It’s that time of the season when the Champions League shares some of its limelight with its neglected twin – The Europa League, indicating it’s ‘crunch time’ in Europe’s elite competitions.
The semi-final line-up in the Europa league is a mouth-watering one and in a sense, ‘complete’ as well. It consists of a European giant desperate for a trophy, a tough Spanish team focusing only on Europe, a German side desperately looking for a homecoming in the final and a small, but gutsy, English club on a fairytale run. You’d be either a compulsive gambler or a psychic freak to guarantee a winner out of the four.
Fight for the ‘Europa League’ trophy
ATLETICO MADRID (Spa) v LIVERPOOL (Eng)
Estadio Vicente Calderon, Madrid
April 22, 2010
0035 IST (Fri Morning) – LIVE on Ten Sports
It’s the battle between two clubs who have been a major disappointment domestically. Liverpool face a daunting trip to El Nino’s old love, Atletico Madrid; a trip potentially more daunting than the opposition itself. For Rafael Benitez’s troops, part of ‘Mission Madrid’ is a tiring rail trip to France followed by a flight to Madrid, as a consequence to the volcanic eruption in Iceland.
This competition offers both clubs an opportunity to semi-salvage a season that has been in tatters right from the beginning, and for their managers to take a huge step towards safeguarding their respective jobs.
Anfield is set to be a telling factor in this tie as Liverpool have been a dreadful away side this season, winning only four times in 17 league games and twice in 6 matches in Europe. They suffered away leg defeats to both Lille and Benfica in the previous rounds, only to cover up the margin at home. On the other hand, Atletico are unbeaten at home in Europe and overpowered Valencia on away goals in the last round.
Liverpool have won twice and drawn twice since their last defeat which was an away loss to Benfica, while Atletico are on a three-game losing streak since their goalless draw against Valencia in the Europa League quarter-finals.
Though Torres’s absence is a major blow to the English side, Aguero’s suspension means both star strikers will be missing from this match. Other major absentees for Liverpool are left-backs Fabio Aurelio and Emiliano Insua, along with central defender Martin Skrtel. For Atletico, Ignacio Camacho is still out but Tomas Ujfalusi and Luis Perea could return in defence.
ATLETICO MADRID 1-1 LIVERPOOL
At Benfica, Liverpool looked comfortable till they went down to ten men. However that line-up included Fernando Torres, who is a key absentee and Dirk Kuyt or David Ngog will be nowhere near as threatening. With both left-backs out injured for Liverpool, Simao could run rings around the makeshift left-back Daniel Agger and this battle could easily decide the game. Reyes versus Johnson is yet another intriguing battle to look forward to on the wings. A long journey to Madrid could also take it’s toll on the Reds and Atletico might sneak a narrow win if that’s the case.
TheHardTackle’s Player To Watch Out:
Steven Gerrard (Liverpool)
In the absence of Torres and Aguero, Gerrard could be the player to make the difference in a tie too close to call. After a torrid season, more glimpses of Gerrard’s brilliance can be seen as games go by and the Liverpool skipper is inching closer to his old form.
HAMBURGER SV (Ger) v FULHAM (Eng)
HSH Nordbank Arena, Hamburg
April 22, 2010
0035 IST (Fri Morning) – LIVE on Zee Sports
Apart from a chance to put behind their semi-final loss from last season, Hamburg have an added incentive of playing a European final in front of their home crowd, at the HSH Nordbank Arena.But in Roy Hodgson’s Fulham, they face a team capable of overturning virtually impossible situations, overcoming heavy odds and produce performances to down any team in Europe.
The European endeavours of both teams have affected their domestic campaigns. Hamburg are currently 7th in the Bundesliga, while Fulham are languishing in 10th in England.
Hamburg have a 3-1-1 record in their last five games but lost at home to Mainz on the weekend. Fulham are unbeaten in their last five games, but haven’t managed to score since Zamora’s winner at Wolfsburg – securing two goalless draws in the league between now and then.
Roy Hogson’s stint at Fulham has been a fairytale story. From an improbable survival from relegation to European football in three years, to finally a potential European final, the same fairytale is fast becoming a club legend. The London minnows have already knocked out current cup holders Shakhtar Donetsk, and followed it up by achieving a phenomenal comeback at Craven Cottage against stunned Italian giants Juventus. This was followed by comfortable victories in both legs over last season’s runners-up Wolfsburg.
Hamburg’s European campaign has certainly not been as spectacular as Fulham’s but has been nerve-wracking indeed. They edged past PSV on away goals and survived a nervous ending at Anderlecht to setup a meeting with Standard Liege, whom they brushed aside 5-2 on aggregate in order to book their place in the last four.
Under-pressure Hamburg coach Bruno Labbadia will be without Marcell Janssen and Mladen Petric for the visit of Fulham, but Dutch winger Eljero Elia is a key player who will miss the rest of the season. On the other hand, Fulham are sweating on the fitness of Clint Dempsey who is likely to sit out this game. John Paintsil is nearing a return to the first team, but Andrew Johnson is still a long-term injury worry for the Cottagers.
HAMBURG 2-1 FULHAM
Even though Fulham have been strong away from home in Europe, THT expects Hamburg to be too strong for them at home. Fulham have not necessarily depended on their solidity throughout the campaign but sheer hard work – something a German team can very well neutralise, especially at home. In a match much less star-studded than the other semi-final, the two strikers up front are bound to be the key to this match. Bobby Zamora has been in incredible form and will give Fulham a wonderful outlet in an away game, while Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s poaching instincts will be required for Hamburg to convert their home pressure into goals.
THT’s Player To Watch Out:
Bobby Zamora (Fulham)
The Fulham striker has been an inspiration for his team-mates. He has pulled off some crucial goals for Fulham and is currently capable of troubling any defence in Europe. ‘Bobby for England!’ shout the Cottagers!