It was no mean feat reaching the UEFA Europa League final – 192 clubs took part in this inaugural edition – and the two teams destined for the Hamburg Arena on 12 May have both had something of an epic journey.
Fulham FC, who shattered Hamburger SV's dreams of a final on home turf with their 2-1 comeback win, are playing in only their second European campaign, some 13 years after they were stuck in England's fourth tier. Club Atlético de Madrid, meanwhile, may be a more established presence in both UEFA competition and Spain's top flight, but relegation rather than European glory was in prospect in October when coach Abel Resino was sacked.
When that decision was made, Atlético were competing in the UEFA Champions League group stage whereas Fulham have been in this competition from the outset – kicking off in the third qualifying round at FK Vėtra of Lithuania on 30 July. There have been more than a few close shaves since.
FC Amkar Perm missed a late chance to pip Fulham to the group stage, from which the west London club needed a tense 3-2 win at FC Basel 1893 to progress. Then in the knockout phase Fulham had to hold firm at last season's UEFA Cup winners FC Shakhtar Donetsk and produce a stunning four-goal comeback to oust Juventus. After overcoming VfL Wolfsburg in the last eight, the semi-final against Hamburg also proved fraught with a road trip of nearly 1,000km required due to the flight ban, before they summoned two goals in the last 21 minutes to see off the visitors in the return.
The final will be Fulham's 19th European game this term, one short of the record of 20 set by FC Girondins de Bordeaux in 1995/96, and Zoltán Gera, who struck the last-four winner, told UEFA.com: "To be honest, we didn't think about the final until the last game, Hamburg.
We didn't think when the Europa League started that we wanted to go in the final. We just wanted to play well, that's it."
A mission they certainly accomplished, with Gera linking up superbly with Bobby Zamora for six goals each. The wing play of Damien Duff and Simon Davies, supported from left-back by the marauding Paul Konchesky, has been important, as have two players with UEFA Cup final experience – midfielder Danny Murphy and goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer. Above all, manager Roy Hodgson has calmly orchestrated matters from the sidelines, showing a nose for the right decision – such as replacing the struggling Zamora at 1-0 down against Hamburg – and deservedly reached the second continental showpiece of his 34-year coaching career.
Quique Sánchez Flores was 11 when Hodgson took charge of Halmstads BK in 1976 yet the Atlético coach deserves plaudits too. Appointed with his new club in the doldrums on 23 October, he ends the season in a final. The winless Rojiblancos narrowly pipped APOEL FC to third place in their UEFA Champions League group, and even their UEFA Europa League run has been a close-run thing. Save for beating last-32 opponents Galatasaray AŞ 3-2 on aggregate with a last-gasp Diego Forlán strike in Istanbul, all their victories have come on away goals; they drew both legs in the round of 16 and quarter-finals.
Forlán was again the hero in the semis, scoring at the Vicente Calderón, then conjuring the extra-time away goal that dashed Liverpool FC's hopes. The relief of the Atlético fans at Anfield was evident if hard-earned – their last major honours came with the 1995/96 Spanish double and they have not contested a UEFA final since the 1985/86 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup. "We will go there and give it everything, we don't care who we are facing," said midfielder Raúl García.
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