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Opportunity knocks for Atlético and Fulham

The inaugural UEFA Europa League final at the Hamburg Arena offers Club Atlético de Madrid and Fulham FC the chance to take home both a trophy and an important piece of history.

Opportunity knocks for Atlético and Fulham
Opportunity knocks for Atlético and Fulham ©UEFA.com

If the Hamburg Arena, a home to football in northern Germany since 1925, provides a worthy venue for the UEFA Europa League final, just as deserved is the participation of two clubs that have overcome the odds to be here.

Fulham FC's roller-coaster ride has taken them past Juventus, FC Shakhtar Donetsk and Hamburger SV; Club Atlético de Madrid have survived the cauldrons of Liverpool FC and Galatasaray AŞ.

Forget the statistics showing Atlético ninth in Spain and Fulham 12th in England. Because Quique Sánchez Flores sees Wednesday's inaugural UEFA Europa League final as his biggest-ever match while Roy Hodgson anticipates a "great moment both in my career and in the history of Fulham".

If Fulham could end their 131-year wait for a trophy it would certainly expunge the memory of their manager's one previous European showpiece – FC Internazionale Milano's 1997 UEFA Cup defeat by FC Schalke 04. The 63-year-old said: "This is a great occasion because it's a one-off final. To lose on penalties in front of your crowd wasn't a happy memory, but I was proud to get to that final and even more proud to get to this. We have been much less fancied and have had a tougher passage."

Fulham were a fourth-division outfit when Inter lost that two-legged tie. Since Hodgson's appointment in December 2007, the west Londoners have recorded their highest top-flight placing – seventh last term – and have reached their first final since the 1975 FA Cup and second overall.

"We're trying to win the competition," added Hodgson, attempting to become the first English manager to land European silverware with an English club since Howard Kendall and Everton in 1985. "It's been a very good season and we're determined to crown it by bringing home a trophy. You work hard to get to finals, playing a lot of important games, but at the end one team is smiling, the other has tears in their eyes." The Craven Cottage side hope Bobby Zamora and Damien Duff will be fit to play, although Zamora sat out Tuesday's training session.

British bookmakers make the nine-time Spanish champions favourites – "Atlético's European pedigree speaks for itself" according to Hodgson – although if anyone can stop them it is the newly-crowned English manager of the season.

Fulham have endured a logistically-taxing journey to this encounter, including a coach trip to their Hamburg semi-final and a flight to FC Amkar Perm near Russia's Ural mountains. Of the two finalists, though, it is Atlético who come freighted with expectation – contesting a first continental showpiece since 1986, and chasing their first European trophy since the 1962 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup, in what will be their fifth final.

"Our primary responsibility is to do a good job," said Quique Flores, missing only reserve goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo through injury. "We know how important this match is in the context of Atlético's history but we'll try not to change things too much. We don't think there's a favourite and we respect Fulham, who have a great manager and have earned their place."

Only a title to take back to the Vicente Calderón will make all that effort truly worthwhile, however. "What worries me is us not doing ourselves justice," continued the coach, whose charges also face Sevilla FC in the Copa del Rey final on 19 May. "We have had a really tough run but the team have stood up and come through those challenges. Finals are there to be enjoyed and you have to go out to win them. We just have to show the same spirit that's taken us this far."