DAVID SMITH - Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Clint Dempsey should get the start for Fulham as they will hope to perform a near-miracle and overturn their two-goal deficit to Juventus in Thursday's Europa League second leg in Craven Cottage.
Juve's trio of goals the week before in Italy has put the Cottagers' European run in jeopardy of coming to an end, with their hopes riding on the team pulling off yet another historic surprise in what has by all accounts been a surprisingly successful run.
David Trezeguet's goal for the Italians, their third of the first leg, just before the half put a damper on what would have been an entirely acceptable 2-1 loss in Turin, but a crucial and by all means rather lucky tally by Dickson Etuhu earlier in the half keeps a thin lining of hope remaining for the second leg.
Having that one away goal in hand, the Londoners will play before the home crowd with the knowledge that a 2-0 win will be enough to see them through outright, while a 3-1 will send the teams into extra time.
Even though the necessity of a multi-goal margin of victory over the seasoned Italian powerhouse presents their biggest challenge so far of the competition, Roy Hodgson and his players do have some factors clearly on their side heading into Thursday's vital game.
The Cottagers have yet to lose on home soil in European competition this season, winning five of six including a 2-1 victory over cup holders Shakhtar Donetsk, with their only dropped points being a group-stage draw with Roma.
More importantly, their previous two games have seen Dempsey make his successful return to play from an earlier knee injury which kept him off the field for nearly two months, meaning the American will have a chance from the get-go to help the Cottagers fight their way into history.
A further sign of encouragement is the continued absence of Juve's goalkeeping talisman and Italy number one Gigi Buffon due to a thigh injury. As his usual backup Alex Manninger has also gone down with a similar injury in the week since their first meeting, the grizzled longtime backup Antonio Chimenti will likely get the starting nod over the entirely untested Carlo Pinsogliois.
The Old Lady has indeed shown her frailties in the new year, most recently this past Sunday when the defense inexplicably spoiled a three-goal lead against Serie A bottom feeders Siena, and are stuck in a tough dogfight with Palermo and Sampdoria for their customary Champions League spot, which is looking all but assured with ten games left in the domestic schedule.
Juve coach Alberto Zaccheroni will have the services of Alessandro Del Piero to call upon after his captain watched the entirety of the first leg from the sidelines, but has a number of field players out, with injuries and suspensions particularly taking a toll on his embattled back line.
Nicola Legrottaglie is suspended after picking up a yellow in last week's win in Turin, while Martin Caceres and Giorgio Chiellini will also watch from the stands with injury.
In addition to his missing defenders, midfielder Claudio Marchisio and Brazilian forward Amauri will also be out due to injury.
Hodgson is also not without injury woes for his squad, as central defender Brede Hangeland's participation will be a gameday decision, while forward Andy Johnson and defender John Paintsil are hobbled with knee injuries.
Team camptain Danny Murphy and midfielder Jonathan Greening are also both suspended for the game, however Bjorn Helge Riise returns to the fold, having recovered from a bug he picked up on the team's trip to Turin.