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For a Fulham FC side that only avoided relegation on the final day of the 2007/08 Premier League season, the prospect of facing two-time European champions Juventus for a place in the UEFA Europa League quarter-finals represents a remarkable upturn in fortunes.
The west London club surpassed expectations last term by claiming a best ever seventh-place finish, and have thrived on the continental stage. Having knocked out UEFA Cup holders FC Shakhtar Donetsk to reach the round of 16, Fulham will not be overawed by the exclusive company they are now keeping, no matter how illustrious the opposition. "We're not afraid of anyone – whoever comes, we are ready," John Pantsil told UEFA.com. "I'm not used to losing games. I just go for victory."
It is an uncomplicated approach, and one that has established the 28-year-old Ghanaian international right-back in Fulham supporters' affections. Despite missing the Shakhtar tie because of a knee injury, his name rang out around Craven Cottage in the first leg, an ode to a man who says he "does everything from my heart".
That includes a lap of honour to thank the supporters after every home success. "The fans deserve everything I give them on the pitch, because they show appreciation. Whether it's raining or not, they're sitting, shouting, singing. So every game the team wins, I have to give them the lap of honour. They deserve it."
So do Fulham, whose Craven Cottage ground sits picturesquely on the banks of the Thames. Behind the homely facade, however, lies a determination that is producing impressive results.
Since kicking off in the third qualifying round in July, Fulham have seen off seasoned European campaigners FC Basel 1983 in the group stage, winning in Switzerland to advance, gone toe to toe with Italian giants AS Roma and ended the ambitions of an experienced, skilful Shakhtar side.
It is easy to forget this is only the club's second season in European competition, their 2002/03 run to the UEFA Cup third round via the UEFA Intertoto Cup their only previous continental foray. With Roy Hodgson at the helm, though, Fulham do not lack experience. "He has done well," Pantsil said of Hodgson, who took FC Internazionale Milano to the UEFA Cup final in 1997.
"He has time for each and every [player]. He has changed the team, he has lifted the team to a certain level. His training makes us feel more relaxed and more comfortable with our positions on the pitch. He is experienced. He knows how to coach his players to play European football."
The former Switzerland and Finland coach took charge in December 2007 with Fulham in freefall. He arrested the slide and then masterminded the recovery, with victory at Portsmouth FC on the final day of the 2007/08 campaign keeping the club in the Premier League.
The signings of Pantsil and striker Bobby Zamora – scorer of the spectacular first-leg winner against Shakhtar – from West Ham United FC, as well as goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer and centre-back Brede Hangeland, established roots which are now bearing fruit. Success in Europe, Pantsil says, "is great. It is pushing us, it is giving us morale, strength and also confidence."
There is no shortage of those attributes in Pantsil himself. The cruciate ligament injury he sustained in December was expected to keep him out for the season, but he now hopes to be back early next month. With Fulham going well in three competitions and the prospect of the FIFA World Cup to come in June, he is determined not to miss out on the action.
Representing Ghana at a World Cup was Pantsil's dream as a child, but it might never have been realised had he followed his father into the police force as his parents wished. Pantsil's passion, though, was always football and it was an enforcer of a different kind – former Manchester United FC midfielder Roy Keane – that he most admired growing up. "He was a good leader, a great midfielder, he always fought for what belonged to him on the pitch." Juventus, too, can expect no quarter in Turin on Thursday.
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