Another big game on Saturday. The title of this piece might seem a little misleading to you since we turned in one of our finest performances of the season in our last outing against Manchester United. But since that fine afternoon by the Thames we’ve had an international break and a long wait before we could get our main men back on the training pitch at Motspur Park.
Liverpool won’t be taking us lightly. Last night, Kenny Dalglish was the latest in a long line of Liverpool legends to warn that they can’t be too complacent when they come to the Cottage. Rafa Benitez’s side might be a little depleted by injuries and international commitemnts but they’ve still got more than enough quality to keep our much improved defence busy. The Reds are close as they’ve got to the title in a long, long time and will be ready for the first of eight cup finals between now and the end of the season.
Much will depend on how we deal with the challenge that Liverpool will present. Even with Benitez’s conservative style, we will spend a lot of time chasing the ball and defending. Liverpool are probably the best side in the league at keeping the ball and – if they get in front – there’s no doubting that they know how to preserve a lead. That means we’ll have to keep our discipline as well as our shape and our midfield, especially the likes of Etuhu and Murphy, will need to keep their composure and make plenty of tackles.
Steven Gerrard was remarkably impressive on Saturday for England and, despite drifting in and out of Wednesday’s nervy victory over the Ukraine, reminded us all that he can pop up and change a game in an instant. I haven’t read too many previews talking about his availability for Saturday night – he’s expected to be in court today for a hearing on his affray charge – but you would imagine that he’ll make the journey if only because Mascherano’s journey back from Bolivia will hardly leave him in perfect condition for 90 minutes at the Cottage. If he does play, we will probably see Gerrard in the position I hope Fabio Capello finally deploys him for England – in behind the lone striker.
That lone striker should be Fernando Torres, despite the fact that he was substituted during Spain’s rather fortunate win in Turkey in midweek. Fulham fans shouldn’t need reminding what ‘El Nino’ can do. He stepped off the bench at Anfield last season with us bravely holding onto a 0-0 and scored the goal that broke our stern resistance. His pace and mobility will certainly give the likes of Hangeland and Hughes a real test.
Hodgson doesn’t usually make too many changes even if we are on a poor run. Watching Clint Dempsey in his two games for the United States over the international week, I was struck by how jaded he looked. He still had the heart and desire to carry the ball forward and get involved in the play, but his legs looked a little heavy. Zoltan Gera’s had two substitute appearances and a goal for Hungary – and his confidence must be sky high after that fine goal against Manchester United was followed by another on international duty. Clint’s done more than enough to retain his place this season, and has even turned in good performances after international duty, but there must be a dicussion about putting him on the bench on Saturday.
Truth be told, I’m not all that confident about the result ahead of the weekend’s game. Fulham aren’t exactly known for their consistency and stringing together successive results against title contenders is asking a little bit too much. Liverpool have a quality side – and even their squad players could feel confident about getting three points at the Cottage. Morale at Anfield must be sky-high after their impressive win at Old Trafford and, with the race for the Premier League still definitely on, there’s no chance of Benitez turning his attention to the forthcoming Champions’ League tie against Chelsea.
But, barring our untimely reverse when we badly needed a win to starve off relegation last season, we’ve got a pretty strong record against Liverpool at home. We chalked a memorable win at Loftus Road when the long-since forgotten Facundo Sava grabbed a couple of goals and got three points on an emotional afternoon just after the sad death of the great Johnny Haynes. More recently, there was Dempsey’s crucial goal that helped get us over the line in a worrying battle against relegation a couple of years ago. Sadly, that victory consigned us to a few more infruriating months of Lawrie Sanchez. Let’s hope we can show some of the same spirit tomorrow night.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Davies, Gera; A. Johnson, Zamora. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Baird, Stoor, Dacourt, Dempsey, Nevland, Kamara.