Bologna here we come!

Wednesday 7 August 2002

Bologna, here we come. The scarf is in the holiday suitcase along with the shorts, sunhat and phrasebook! I say that with more of a sense of relief than of elation after watching the Sochaux game on Eurosport. To get to the final of any competition is a significant achievement, and this is our first final since 1975.

The performance that got us there was bitty, to say the least. No, let's be frank - in the first half it was awful. Sochaux made 6 changes from the first leg, mindful of having a tough league game at the weekend, and in the first period did not have one recognised striker in their line-up.

Not surprisingly, they crowded the midfield and pressed us whenever we got the ball, but I still thought our tactics were not right. Far too many hopeful long balls punted up the middle, easily soaked up by the Sochaux defenders, and far too little interplay on the ground. Our best chance came from a Steed free-kick, glanced on by Louis Saha, which brought a fine save from the Sochaux keeper.

At the other end, Edwin had to be alert to reach a long-range chip but was otherwise relatively untroubled, despite an edgy performance by our full-backs in particular. Half-time brought a problem. I very much wanted to see the European Championships 100-metre final, due to start at 7.35, so there was more than a little channel-hopping as the sprint went through a nervy series of false starts before Dwain Chambers powered home for Britain in a superb 9.96.

Between two of the false starts, I flicked back to the match to see Steve Marlet miss a great chance. The ominous feeling arose that it was going to be one of those nights. On 55, Sochaux made three substitutions, all of them forwards, including a Brazilian called Santos. Tig responded by taking Steed off and putting Inamoto on.

Within a 60-second period the game was decided. On 64 minutes, we got a free-kick about 40 yards out. Sean took it and for once the delivery was perfect - right on to Monica's head, and the header was deadly, flying into the top corner. From the kick-off, Sochaux attacked, Santos got a flick and Edwin made a terrific reaction save.

Suddenly, everything seemed more relaxed. We started to play the flowing football that had been so absent in the first half. Ina's inclusion was a factor. He laid off some great balls, and seems to be very aware of what is going on around him.

Bazza came on for Louis and made an immediate impact, putting himself about and unsettling the Sochaux defenders. Within 5 minutes he scored a superb goal, picking up the ball 30 yards out, shrugging off a challenge and smashing a terrific left-foot shot into the top corner from the edge of the box.

It typified the best of his play. There is talk of him leaving us, perhaps to West Brom to link up with his pal from Bristol Rovers days, Jason Roberts. I would be sorry to see him go. He never gives less than 100% and has scored any number of vital goals for us, often after coming on as a sub.

With the second goal, the tie was decided. JC came on for Boa (who had not done a lot, thanks partly to very close attention from his marker). The rest of the game was a stroll, but on 78 minutes we produced a glorious move with Ina feeding Marlet, who was clear in on goal but again failed to finish.

The Eurosport commentators were opining that we would find life tough in the Premiership this season. On the evidence of the first half, they would be right. But if we play as we did in the last half-hour at Sochaux, we will be fine.

For now, attention focuses on Bologna. My plans, tentatively formulated weeks ago, have worked out and from 8 possible teams, the two I wanted have made it to the final. We are just two games away from a UEFA Cup place. But Bologna will be a far, far stiffer test than any of the 3 teams we have overcome so far.

We have the potential advantage of the away leg first. A lot of responsibility rests on our defence. If we can come away from Bologna with a clean sheet, or only one goal conceded, we are in with a shout. However, Bologna scored 8 in the two legs of their semi-final, 5 of them at home.

We are playing a Serie A team on their own ground in front of a fanatical crowd, and just a handful of us. How is that going to feel, I wonder? It will be intimidating for the fans as well as the team. I hope to be there, if the necessary arrangements can be made. God knows how I'll get a ticket, but I'll try.

We shall be carrying the flag for England, as Aston Villa stumbled to a 0-2 home defeat to Lille and have gone out of the competition. The other finalists are Stuttgart, Malaga and Troyes, so the line-up is two from France and one each from England, Germany, Italy and Spain.

If you had asked me a year ago who would be the only English team in the finals of the 2002 Inter-Toto Cup, I would honestly not have guessed at Fulham. It's a major achievement and it makes me proud to be a Whites fan. However, I am sure that Tig sees the real job coming up now - to get us through to the UEFA Cup.

By then, if you believe all that you read in the papers and on websites, our squad could have undergone further changes. Bazza and possible Eddie Lewis leaving, so they tell us, and a queue forming at the door to get in. Names I've seen mentioned include Jardel, Flo (not again!), Marcus Bent from Ipswich, and tonight the Eurosport boys said we were 'on the verge' of signing a Cameroon defender.

I have become a bit sceptical about all this, and I now prefer to wait for proper news via the website. Maybe there will be some soon, but regardless of that, I hope to be able to bring you some really good news from the fine city of Bologna next week. I have watched Italian matches on TV many times but only dreamed I might be going to one of their finest stadia di calcio to watch Fulham play. Next week, incredibly, yet another dream comes true.

Roger is always pleased to hear from other Fulham fans. You can contact him at roger@smithwalk.demon.co.uk