Fulham aim for final fling against Atletico
Two years after saving their Premier League skins on the final day of the season, homely Fulham are hoping to complete a remarkable journey under much-travelled manager Roy Hodgson by beating the nine-times Spanish champions.
Midfielder Simon Davies described Fulham's sensible, well-organised style as "not very exciting" at the club's training ground last week but their path to the showpiece in the German port city has been pure fantasy.
After starting in the qualifying competition against Lithuanian side FK Vetra on July 30 last year, Fulham made it out of a tough first round group containing AS Roma, CSKA Sofia and Basel, and then began toppling some of Europe's big guns in the knockout rounds.
First, holders Shakhtar Donetsk were felled, then Juventus and they followed that by beating German champions Wolfsburg before breaking SV Hamburg's hearts in the semis.
"Since staying up on the last day at Portsmouth the transformation has been film-like really," midfielder Danny Murphy, a UEFA Cup winner with Liverpool, told reporters.
"If you had written it as a book, you would laugh at the speed of it and the surrealness of it and that's all credit to Roy and the staff."
"I was suspended for the Juventus game and when they scored I felt like going home. But after that fightback we all started to believe it could a special year. We thought, we've beaten Juve, so we can beat anybody."
Englishman Hodgson, the former Inter Milan coach, has done a remarkable job moulding a bunch of players that were bit-part players at former clubs into a tight-knit unit that has proved formidable at their Craven Cottage ground beside the Thames.
Bobby Zamora, a striker who had mixed success at Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United, has bagged eight goals in the competition although he is struggling with an Achilles injury.
Zoltan Gera, the Hungarian midfielder signed from West Bromwich Albion, has chipped in with six, including two on an incredible night in March when Fulham came back from the dead against Juventus, overturning a 4-1 aggregate deficit.
Ireland's Damien Duff and American Clint Dempsey have also been vital cogs as has Australian goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer who is hoping to make up for losing to Sevilla in the UEFA Cup final when playing for Middlesbrough.
"It's been a remarkable achievement to reach the final but I for one will be telling the boys that this opportunity might not come round again," Schwarzer said. "I've been lucky and this is my second and I want a positive conclusion."
Unlike Fulham, Atletico have a rich European pedigree but have not appeared in a continental final since the now defunct Cup Winners' Cup in 1986.
Often regarded as the scruffy relations in the Spanish capital where Real reign, they are seeking their first trophy since their league and cup double in 1996, ending years of inferiority for the fans appropriately known as "los sufridores" (the sufferers).
In Diego Forlan, Antonio Reyes and Sergio Aguero, they have a formidable looking strike-force and will start as favourites but they have hardly blazed a trail in Europe this season.
They began it in the Champions League where they failed to win a group game and after dropping into the Europa League they won three of their four ties on away goals, including the semi-final victory over Liverpool courtesy of Forlan's late effort.
However, like Fulham, they have prospered under a new coach.
Quique Sanchez Flores was appointed in October with the club in the relegation mire and he could end it with two trophies, first the Europa League and then the Copa del Rey next week when they play Sevilla.
"We have to be on our best form. We respect Fulham," he told reporters. "When a team gets to a final having knocked out some very strong opposition that shows they have some tools they use very well. We should not underestimate them."