From the Sunday Times
A CURIOUS romance is in the air, suggesting that Chelsea hubris is being set against Fulham humility at Villa Park this evening. It is misleading, because under Claudio Ranieri, Chelsea are working harder by the month, and because the spending power of the Mohamed Al Fayed purse has imported £30m of French reinforcements for Fulham.
There is nothing humble in London's West End. However, the Fulham fans who once feared closure of their club travel with a freshness of hope that would be lost on Chelsea.
Formed in 1879, and never a winner of anything as grand as the FA Cup, Fulham last contested a semi-final 27 years ago.Chelsea are journeying to their 10th semi-final in nine years, and winning the Cup again is secondary to the main target of qualifying through the Premiership for the Champions League.
One splendid day in Cardiff in May, and the bonuses that go with it, do not compare to Chelsea chairman Ken Bates's craving to be among the giants.
Cups are baubles, useful insurance for entry to Europe's income streams, but the real prize for Chelsea is to share in the Champions League riches next year, and win England's championship the year after.
Even so, the safe money is on Chelsea tonight. They have big-match temperament, they have talent, know-how and no reason to be nervous on the pitch. Fulham are first-timers in the Premiership, with a rhythm that is easy on the eye, but a habit of not taking their chances.
They have run Chelsea close in two league games, but have only one point to show for it. And perhaps Steed Malbranque epitomises where Fulham stand in their development. He is a bull of a man, sturdy without having imposing height, swift without covering the ground quite like Ryan Giggs, technically accomplished without knowing how good he can be. "Steed can score or make goals," observes a coach who knows every nuance of his game, "but he is just 22, and when you move to another country, you have a human challenge, then the challenge to express yourself as a player. He will do that. The ball to him is like his girlfriend, and he has the capacity to change the facet of a game." The speaker, obviously, is not English. Christian Damiano, the experienced mind alongside Fulham's manager Jean Tigana, is steeped in the French system of grooming better technique than we are yet achieving in England. He first saw Malbranque when the boy was 13 and was, although born in Belgium, already under the wing of Olympique Lyons.
The club, and for once not the famed academy at Clairefontaine, spent years encouraging the close control of the growing Malbranque, widening his vision to pass and shoot from greater distances. Lyons produced a playmaker who progressed to captain France at under-18 level. In common with all the French clubs, they could not hold on to such a talented player.
Tigana and Damiano soon arrived with £4.5m of Fayed's fortune, to take Malbranque to London. It was not the most expensive investment Fulham have made, but Damiano believes it will produce bountiful dividends. "It's too early for Malbranque for the national team," Damiano told the club website last week, "but he plays the No 10 position that (Zinedine) Zidane excels at. He has the potential to one day replace Zidane."
From such a thoughtful mentor to a still-blossoming talent, that is some public statement. We may not see the quick feet of a Zidane, the awareness bordering on genius tonight, because Malbranque is not ready for that either, and Chelsea, with considerable French forces themselves, including World Cup winners Marcel Desailly and Emmanuel Petit, would not allow it.
There lies the difference between the clubs. Chelsea have scaled back the ageing squad they had, but still there is a ripeness, a confidence that comes with medals on the table, whereas Fulham are reaching up, growing into Premiership status, learning along the way.How pleasing it has been to see Tigana stick to his passing principles, how galling it would be if the club went down, allowing those who think ability has to be laced with aggression to make a mark at this level to believe they are right.
Fulham showed at Newcastle last Monday that they can, and should, survive. Malbranque has shown the potential to compete and to surprise, and if the forwards, Louis Saha and Steve Marlet, can believe in themselves more and impose their speed and opportunism, there is, as always, the possibility of a surprise in a one-off match such as a semi-final.
But one victory in 10 league and cup games tells you that there is a struggle going on inside the heads of the Fulham players. And, without a man who has experienced the tensions and the unique atmosphere of an FA Cup semi-final - one made hellishly expensive for 38,000 Londoners who will have to travel the motorways at the FA's whim - there remains the factor of the unknown.
Chelsea could think their name is on the Cup, or at least on an appearance in the final, and be complacent. Fulham could be inspired, or cowed, by what is the chance of a lifetime for most of them. Chelsea's World Cup contingent could have their minds on other things, while most of Fulham's players are a month away from the season's end.
Where you fear for Fulham is in defence, though behind them stands a man long of reach and longer still in pedigree. Goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar has played semi-finals at every level, from World Cup to European Championship with Holland. He has won the European Cup with Ajax and Serie A with Juventus.
In the dressing room today he will be the picture of calm. "It is a semi-final," van der Sar says, "and you have not won anything if you win a semi- final. It is nothing to get stressed about."
Come the final, if they get there, he will have to think of some other words to be the stress buster.
Fulham Boss Jean Tigana is quite clear about what Fulham's FA Cup run will mean if they lose to Chelsea in Sunday's FA Cup semi-final - nothing.
The Fulham manager, who was a World Cup star for France, said: 'For me, it is not an achievement to reach the semi-final. The achievement is to win it and to be in the final.'
Tigana has never watched a video of France's epic World Cup semi-final in 1982 against West Germany. Then, his side lost a 3-1 lead in extra time and were beaten on penalties. Tigana explained: 'As soon as the match was lost, that was the end of it for me. You have to move on.'
Tigana has tried to instill the same tough-minded approach into his players before their semi-final game against their West London neighbours.
After Monday night's draw at Newcastle, Premiership survival is now within touching distance for Fulham, and that is something Tigana is willing to smile about.
He said: 'If you stay in the Premier League, that is a good season'. But now Fulham are in the last four of the FA Cup, he wants to win it.
'I like the compliment that people say we play good football, but I also want us to win. What we have needed this season is to score goals, we miss too many chances. But many of my players have not played at this level before and they have had to learn quickly because Premiership football is so different.'
Tigana accepts that Chelsea will not feel the pressure at Villa Park on Sunday. 'Why should they?' he said. 'It should not be a problem for them. They have players like Marcel Desailly, they have stars who have played at the highest level for many years. They are used to this kind of attention.
'They have played in important international matches and European Cup finals. This kind of game is not new to them whereas for many of my players it is a discovery process.'
One who is finding out what life in the Premiership is all about is Steve Marlet. Signed for £11.5million from Lyon, the French striker was ruled out for two months with a knee injury after joining in September.
Tigana said: 'He is now beginning to show what he can do. He is back.'
Tigana's message to his team before they go out will be a simple one. 'Just be yourselves, just be normal and play your usual game. Good players, they can give their 100 per cent performance in tough matches. That is what we must try to do and I will try to make my approach as normal as possible.'
Steve Marlet hopes to be playing in more exotic locations this summer but a goal he scored on a winter's evening in Buckinghamshire may turn out to be the most crucial of his season.
Fulham were three minutes from a humiliating FA Cup third-round defeat at Second Division Wycombe when the club's record signing headed an equaliser.
While Marlet did no harm to his chances of travelling to the World Cup with France by scoring the fifth and final goal in the holders' demolition of Scotland last month, he knows how vital this afternoon's semi-final against Chelsea is to Fulham's season.
Marlet, signed from Lyon for £11.5million in August, said: 'The goal against Wycombe was one of the most important I have scored since coming to England. I'm happy that in my first year here I will be playing in the FA Cup semi-final. It's our last chance to get a European place.
'We will try to play as we did in the two Premiership games against them and hope for more luck.'
Good fortune is something Marlet believes Fulham have lacked as they slipped into a relegation battle. He said: 'If I had to choose, it would be better for us to stay in the Premier League than to win the FA Cup. But I think we will win the game against Chelsea and stay up.'
The only name on the Fulham injury list for Sunday's FA Cup semi-final showdown with Chelsea is long-term casualty Lee Clark.
The midfielder picked up an Achilles injury in the 0-0 draw against Charlton on Boxing Day, and then a calf strain on his return against Liverpool at the beginning of March.
Barry Hayles was hit with a three-match FA ban earlier this week, but as the club has launched an appeal he is free to play at Villa Park
Fulham (from): Van der Sar, Brevett, Finnan, Melville, Goma, Ouaddou, Harley, Legwinski, Knight, Malbranque, Davis, Taylor, Marlet, Saha, Hayles, Boa Morte.
Chelsea have a number of injury problems to address, with Jesper Gronkjaer, William Gallas, Graeme Le Saux, Celestine Babayaro and Mikael Forssell all having missed the midweek goalless draw at Blackburn.
Physio Mike Banks admitted: "We've gone from a clean bill of health to losing Jesper Gronkjaer and William Gallas, and now we've picked up minor muscle injuries for Graeme Le Saux and Celestine Babayaro.
"We're a little bit unsure where we're going with all of them at the moment. We will bide our time although we're hopeful."
Gronkjaer is confident of being fit after a foot injury but if Le Saux and Babayaro are still ruled out, Albert Ferrer could again be asked to fill in as an emergency left-back as he did at Ewood Park.
Claudio Ranieri fears Fulham's team ethic, rather than any one individual. He said: "There isn't one over-riding danger with Fulham as they have a very good squad.
"They play good football but this season they have lacked one good striker."
Chelsea (from): Cudicini, Ferrer, Terry, Desailly, Melchiot, Stanic, Lampard, Petit, Zola, Gudjohnsen, Zenden, Hasselbaink, Jokanovic, Dalla Bona, Cole, de Goey.