x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Ash cloud or not, teams enjoying the spotlight

With travel plans under threat, Europa League finalists reach Hamburg in advance as Atletico Madrid meet first-timers Fulham for a title they missed 14 years ago.

Atletico Madrid's players travelled to Hamburg for tomorrow's Europa Cup final a day earlier than planned. With volcanic ash clouds again threatening air travel in Europe, the team and officials flew during a window of opportunity rather than face a 21-hour coach trip to Northern Germany for their first European final since losing to Dynamo Kiev in the Cup Winners' Cup 14 years ago. A Fulham side, in their first European final, await with the west Londoners having started in the qualifying rounds of the competition last July. Just 13 years ago, they were playing in England's fourth tier in front of average crowds of 6,000. Tonight will be their 19th European game this term including mile-clocking trips to Bulgaria, Ukraine, Russia and Lithuania. Atletico's season has been one of two halves. They won just five of their first 20 games in all competitions and were eliminated from the Champions League group stage without a win. Coach Abel Resino was replaced by Quique Sanchez Flores, who began to turn their season around by winning in the Europa League. They rose up the league to mid-table, reached the Copa Del Rey final against Sevilla to be played next week and knocked several top-level European sides out en route to Hamburg.

Galatasaray, Sporting Lisbon and Valencia were all beaten before Atletico met Liverpool in the semi-finals, with former Manchester United striker Diego Forlan scoring in each game against the English side. "This season has turned out well," says the striker who turns 31 next week. "Maybe not in the league where we started poorly, but we are in two cup finals. We were the only team to beat Barcelona in the league and things went well for us against Liverpool." His fellow striker Sergio Aguero is relishing the game in the 51,000 capacity Nordbank Arena. "This is a huge match for us, because the team have given a lot but haven't won anything yet," he told reporters. "I've never been to a final before, so it's a first for me and hopefully I can give my best and we'll win. It will be difficult because a final is a one-off. Let's hope it goes our way." "Fulham are in the final because they have good players who have done a great job," added Aguero. "We are trying to think it as just another game, but it's a final. English football is very hard, and Fulham are one of the toughest teams in the Premier League. They will give everything to win, as we will, so we must be concentrated and play well, like in our previous matches."

Fulham's run to the final has seen their veteran manager Roy Hodgson widely lauded. They defeated the holders FC Shakhtar Donetsk and eliminated VfL Wolfsburg and, in the semi-finals, an SV Hamburg side desperate to reach the final in their own home. But reaching the final surprised even their own players. "We didn't think about the possibility until the semis," said striker Zoltan Gera, who scored the winner that took them through. We didn't think when the Europa League started that we wanted to get to the final. We just wanted to play well." Gera and strike partner Bobby Zamora scored six goals each in their campaign, during which they produced a stunning four goal comeback against Juventus in the quarter finals. With both clubs selling out their 13,000 allocations immediately and requesting more tickets, this often-maligned tournament has been given a shot of credibility and much needed attention. sports@thenational.ae