When we talk about fruitless away trips as Fulham fans, our mind often turns to Everton because – as proved a couple of weeks ago – it is now eight years in the Premier League and eight defeats at Goodison Park. But, looking through the statistics this week ahead of our game at Liverpool on Saturday, it should be noted that our record on the other side of Stanley Park is almost as abysmal. Our only Premier League point at Anfield came win Edwin van der Sar saved a Steven Gerrard penalty in a dire 0-0 draw a few years back and we haven’t come close to replicating even that result in recent years.
Of course, the smart money will be on Liverpool extending our grim record even further with a win on Saturday. It is often remarked that Liverpool’s title challenge looks good around Christmas time only to fade by February as their rivals form an orderly queue at the top of the table, but it has to be said that this season looks like it could be different. Rafa Benitez had made some smart additions to his squad and the team certainly has started in title-winning mode, thrashing opponents as well as grinding out the important narrow wins when they haven’t been playing well.
There is stronger depth to the Liverpool now than in previous seasons and, it is conceivable that they could line-up when talisman Steven Gerrard (who was missing for England last night) and centre-forward Fernando Torres, who scored for Spain but is still lacking match sharpness, and still expect to beat us handsomely. That might be because the likes of Robbie Keane and Albert Riera have settled in so seamlessly at Anfield but also because our away performances so far this season have followed the usual Fulham tradition of being rather meek.
So, how do we approach the game? The Lawrie Sanchez method of last year – where we sat deep and let Liverpool come onto us – was deeply uninspiring and, while it nearly worked, was also obviously flawed. Liverpool scored two late goals to win the game but without a true holding midfielder (we lined up with Steven Davis and Danny Murphy in midfield) or someone to hold the ball up front, we struggled to break up play and then keep hold of the ball once we did have it in our possession. There is a temptation to almost man the barricades if you will at Anfield, but I would suggest that we now have better players than Sanchez had at his disposal and carry more of a goal threat so it would be foolish for Hodgson to try and play for a point.
With that in mind, I would be seriously tempted to stick with the same side that beat Spurs last weekend. The defence has looked pretty sturdy: instead, we have, to date, the third best defensive record in the league (which is pretty unbelievable given some of the defending that dogged the last campaign). Much of the credit must go to the goalkeeper and his two centre backs – Hangeland and Hughes seem to have really worked to form a fine partnership and all three will have to be at their very best to keep the likes of Torres, Kuyt, Babel and Keane quiet on Saturday.
I would fancy that, barring any injuries, the midfield should pick itself. Clint Dempsey’s fine display against Tottenham showed just what he can offer with an array of tricks and powerful shooting from the right – his influence could be just what we need to worry Liverpool. Bullard should return from international duty alongside Murphy, who will want to prove a point to his former employers, and Simon Davies can fill in on the left again if he shakes off the ankle problem that prevented him from representing Wales in midweek. With Zamora and Johnson up front and in good form, we could even dream of troubling the scorers at Anfield – but the likelihood is of a long journey home with nothing to show for our endeavour. I can’t afford to make the trip up to Merseyside this weekend so hopefully one of our guest reporters will do the job of capturing the atmosphere for us.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Murphy, Bullard, Dempsey, Davies; Zamora, Johnson. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Baird, Andreasen, Gray, Gera, Kallio, Nevland.