Among the supporters of Fulham, a hot debate is under way as to whether tonight's visit to Turin's Stadio Olimpico represent the most glamorous day in well over 100 years of the London club's history. Juventus, twice the champions of Europe, 27 times the holders of Italy's scudetto, is certainly a name to resonate for fans who barely 15 years ago were watching their team trying to avoid slipping from 91st place in the professional ladder of English football to 92nd.
In the Europa League, much more than in the Champions League, you can still find these unlikely, romantic match-ups. On the face of it, Juventus and Fulham have nothing more in common than they wear black and white. This will be Juve's 341st match in a Uefa club competition. It will be Fulham's 27th. Juventus are begrudgingly taking part in Europe's secondary tournament because they parachuted down into it after elimination from the Champions League.
Fulham, meanwhile, grasped the final place accorded to the Premier League in the rebranded Uefa Cup, and have enjoyed the marathon journey it has taken them on. But the idea that this is the summit, their glitziest tie in history, would be disputed first of all by Roy Hodgson, their urbane manager. Fulham, he would point out, beat the English Premier League leaders Manchester United 3-0 a couple of months ago. That is a glamorous result, too.
Fulham have just knocked out Shaktar Donetsk, Uefa Cup holders, to secure their date with Juve. That is quite a feather in their caps. Under Hodgson, Fulham have ceased to be timid in the company of more decorated opponents, although the manager would prefer it if some of Fulham's European chutzpah did not tend to express itself with late red cards. They collected one in each of their two group phase meetings with Roma, with whom they drew at home and lost in Italy.
Danny Murphy, their captain, will miss tonight's adventure, after he was suspended following a loss of temper and a dismissal during the 1-1 draw in Ukraine that guided Fulham into the last 16. Juventus will know that, under Hodgson, Fulham have become hard to score against. Only four other Premier League teams have conceded fewer goals - Fulham stand 10th in the English top-flight - this season. They play a pleasing game too, but the tidiness at the back is the characteristic identified most readily with the Italian influence on their manager.
Hodgson, uniquely among senior English coaches, worked in Serie A when it was considered the most sophisticated league in the world, during the 1990s and early part of the last decade, with two spells in charge of Inter Milan and a brief interlude at Udinese. His career has also taken him across Scandanavia and included a spell in the UAE when he was appointed manager of the national side in 2002. He led Switzerland to a World Cup and once led Inter to a final of the Uefa Cup, in 1997, when, he admits, the tournament had muted appeal to Inter fans.
"For a long time, the league had become the big target because it had been so long in coming," recalls Hodgson of that era, "and even when we reached a Uefa Cup final, they weren't doing cartwheels about it." Not that he expects Juventus, well out of contention for a league title this season, to be snooty about the Europa League. He identifies the experienced men in the Juve team as retaining a hunger for the trophies that were once almost routine but have been absent since 2007, the Alessandro Del Pieros, David Trezeguets and Fabio Cannavaros, players who were operating in Serie A even when Hodgson was last coaching there.
The longevity of these players, Hodgson, believes, is part of the culture of Italian football. "Serie A is nowhere near as intense as the Premier League. In Italy, it is slower-paced and can be more technical, which is maybe why older players can still perform at a high level there. "It gets intense only around the penalty area, defences drop much deeper, and in midfield there's not so much flying back and forth. In the Premier League you get very little time on the ball anywhere."
Up against Hodgson today is an old adversary, Alberto Zaccheroni. While in charge at Inter, Hodgson inflicted three defeats on Zaccheroni's Udinese in the late 1990s. But the last time they sat in opposing dugouts, with Hodgson by then in charge of Udinese, Zaccheroni's Lazio went to Udine and won 4-1. It was not long after that Hodgson terminated the Serie A chapter of his career. "I still look back on it with great affection," he says. @Email:email@example.com