DAVID SMITH - Thursday, April 1, 2010
Having dispatched of holders Donetsk and Italian powerhouse Juventus, Clint Dempsey and the Cottagers open their two-game tilt against Wolfsburg in Craven Cottage with the Europa League title in their focus.
Fulham have been one of the biggest success stories of the inaugural Europa League, deservedly storming their way to the quarterfinals with a pair of improbable upsets in the first two knockout round.
If a solid all-around win over last season's UEFA Cup champions Shakhtar Donetsk in the round of 32 not enough to prove their mettle in continental play, their subsequent come-from-behind round of 16 upset over Juventus - capped by Dempsey's wonder-strike - will have silenced all doubters.
Their quarterfinal opponents Wolfsburg do come in as the reigning German Bundesliga champions, however have failed to follow up in the current season with a porous defense - the second worst defensive record in Germany's top flight - the main culprit in their current mid-standings struggle.
Wolfsburg's failure to repeat their domestic league successes of last season does put both teams in a similar position; each are entrenched in the middle of the standings with neither relegation nor a push for a European spot directly in their sights, meaning that a push towards the Europa League title is a primary focus on both sides of the ball.
Both teams are in uncharted territory, as neither has ever reached a European quarterfinal in their history, and this is the first-ever meeting between the two clubs.
Fulham have shown a remarkable resilience on their home grounds against teams visiting from abroad, as their all-time home record in European competition stands at ten wins against four draws and no losses, including the most recent 4-1 thrashing of Juventus.
This should give coach Roy Hogdson the confidence to take an attack-minded strategy against the defensively-weak Germans in an attempt to build a comfortable advantage heading into next Thursday's return leg in Wolfsburg.
Hodgson had the advantage of being able to rest a number of starters during the weekend's loss to Hull, and has minimal injury concerns for Thursday's game. Only John Pantsil and Andy Johnson are absent with knee injuries, and no players are serving card suspensions.
A knee injury scare to Edin Dzeko early in the week turned out to be of no real concern, meaning interim Wolfsburg coach Lorenz-Günther Köstner will have the full firepower of attacking triad of Dzeko, Grafite and Zvjezdan Misimovic available to attempt to sneak an away goal or two in London.
Wolfsburg's Czech central defender Jan Simunek has failed to shake off the rust after returning from a long injury spell several weeks ago, likely forcing Köstner to once again turn to Italian international Andrea Barzagli to steady the back line.
Conversely, Swiss keeper Diego Benaglio seems to have not missed a step after missing 11 games while undergoing knee surgery, having posted a shut-out in his return to the field last weekend.
Otherwise, the team faces no injury concerns or suspensions.