The big games just keep on coming. Typical of the early-season knee-jerk reactions, there was plenty of tension surrounding last Monday’s home tie with Hull. Lose and we might have faced being cut adrift at the bottom and the glamour game against Roma a couple of days later might have been seen as the reason for our ‘slow’ start rather than an opportunity to put good old Fulham on the map. Of course, that wasn’t how it turned out.
Nobody was expecting too much from our trip to Manchester City last Sunday either, especially after the heartbreaking concession of that injury-time goal to the Italians. Despite a creditable display, at 2-0 down with around an hour gone it seemed as though it was a matter of how many City would score. It is a sign of just how far Fulham have come – and testament to the spirit in the camp – that the Whites fought back to claim a morale-boosting point. Nobody will be foolish enough to be expecting three points against a revitalised Liverpool, who looked very impressive in their dismantling of Manchester United at Anfield last weekend.
The speculation surrounding Rafa Benitez’s future has always seemed a bit of a media creation to me. Sacking their managers just isn’t the Liverpool way and, even if the already unpopular American owners wanted to incur the wrath of the Kop, the club’s finances would probably mean they couldn’t afford it anyway. Benitez’s resources might be stretched again this weekend – he’s likely to be without Steven Gerrard, Glen Johnson and Alberto Aquilani – but he will still be able to field a talented side that will be desperate to prove that their title challenge isn’t a flight of fancy.
They will be plenty of danger to Fulham’s hopes of extending their five-match unbeaten run too. You don’t need reminding of the threat Fernando Torres poses to any defence – he came off the bench to turn our trip to Anfield decisively in Liverpool’s favour in his debut season when it looked like Lawrie Sanchez might somehow escape with a point. Even a half-fit Torres was frighteningly strong and agile at Anfield last week, shaking off the attentions of Rio Ferdinand with disdain – something that must have alarmed Fabio Capello. The danger doesn’t just lie in the Spaniard’s boots though.
Converting Dirk Kuyt from a striker into a workhorse of a winger always struck me as a bit odd – Benitez has tried the same trick with Kuyt’s compatriot Ryan Babel and stunted the former Ajax protege’s progress in the process – but the Dutchman possesses both the attitude and ability to be a real threat down the flank. Kuyt’s boundless energy has endeared him to the Liverpool faithful and he’s very dangerous arriving late into the box.
The other thing that has baffled me about Benitez’s selections has been just how long Yossi Benyanoun has had to wait for a first-team chance. The Israeli has plenty of Premier League experience and a smart footballing brain capable of unlocking the tightest of defences. He’s ideally suited to playing either out wide or in the position just behind Torres that Gerrard won’t be able to occupy tomorrow and, as Fulham fans will testify, can be deadly in front of goal. It was his late goal that broke Fulham’s dogged resistance at the Cottage last season.
With Mascherano and Lucas shielding the back four, Liverpool will be very difficult to break down. Roy Hodgson’s side gave them a couple of really good games last year – creating plenty of chances in an entertaing goalless draw at Anfield. The absence of Andy Johnson might just work in Fulham’s favour too. Bobby Zamora and Diomansy Kamara seem to have struck up a good understanding in the past few weeks, even if neither them looked particularly predatory at the City of Manchester Stadium. Kamara’s pace could unsettle a Liverpool defence that has looked a little more unsettled than usual this season.
Danny Murphy will be disappointed to miss out on facing his former side and there’s no overstating just how big a loss the Fulham captain is. But Chris Baird and Jonathan Greening have taken their chance to impress with both Murphy and Etuhu sidelined and both were excellent again in Manchester. Greening is showing signs of the intelligence that merited Hodgson’s persistence in getting him in from West Brom and Baird’s value as a key member of the first-team squad has been underscored by a series of outstanding performances in central midfield that might mean Etuhu could be waiting for a while to get his place back. They’ll have a tough test against Liverpool’s fluid passing and movement from midfield, but you get the sense the pair won’t be daunted by their latest assignment.
Keeping Liverpool’s forward threats quiet will be vital, as will taking our chances. If Benitez’s side come out of the traps in the manner they did against United, it will take a mighty performance to prevent them leaving with all three points. Then again, we’ve become used to Hodgson’s side surpassing themselves over the last year or so.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Kelly, Hughes, Hangeland; Baird, Greening, Duff, Dempsey; Zamora, Kamara. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Smalling, Gera, Riise, Seol, Nevland, E. Johnson.