We travel to the North West tommorow to play a Liverpool team who’s picked up right where we left off at the end of last season; imperious home form, awful away. Looking at the home and away league tables, it really tells the tale of their season. At home they’ve picked up more points than all teams in the league apart from United and Chelsea with a game in hand on half the teams in the league, which is suprising considering just how bad some of their results have been this season (the infamous home loss to Blackpool, Sunderland being held to a draw, Northampton in the Carling Cup). Away, Liverpool are even worse than us, but let’s not pay attention to that until the week before the reverse fixture. We shouldn’t underestimate Liverpool at Anfield because they’ve tossed around teams near us like Villa and West Ham while taking it very. very easy.

Us for us, well the bright start under Hughes is dulling fast. The league as expected is now taking more of a shape and we can no longer say ‘We may be 17th but the top half is just one win away’. Teams have been winning their matches whereas we’ve been drawing them, so it’s not suprising to see that 10th is now 6 points away. We have missed Zamora much more than I feared because his replacements just haven’t performed. We can give a bit of leeway to AJ who still hasn’t put together a run of starts since coming back from injury, but Kamara and EJ just do not look good enough and Elm’s disappeared off the face of the earth although I suspect he wouldn’t look make much of an impression either. The links to Lacina Traore are promising, a very talented young player who can head a ball almost as well as he can kick it. He’s made an impression in Europe this season with his side FC Cluj and alot of media reports originating from Romania suggest he’s coming here (not to mention a team mate of his let slip he’s coming to England in January. Hmmm….).

Until we buy Traore or another capable Zamora-like target man upfront is by far our biggest concern coming into this game. Our ‘goals against’ column is actually quite impressive, other than the current top four only Sunderland have conceded less, and looking at our goal difference shows that we aren’t being out played and battered every week. Apart from the unfortunate City game the other week, our games have been pretty close and I honestly believe that with Zamora we would have at least 4 or 5 more points which would put us bang in mid table. Fact is the forwards that we have at the moment aren’t creating opportunities for others or taking the ones that are presented to them. Kamara’s got a  hattrick of sitters he’s missed already at crucial points in games (1-0 away at West Brom, 1-1 at Arsenal and in the 90th minute away at West Ham), I don’t think Eddie’s had a shot on target and AJ’s been a disappointment although it’s nice to see his movement is getting sharper every time he plays.

However, our football under Hughes has been pretty nice to watch in my opinion. Results are not going too great at the moment so some fans have labeled us a long ball team which I think is unfair (certainly not more than we were under Roy) and there was a glaring stat from Opta this week which labelled us as the 5th best passers in the league (after the current top four again) which backs it up. I also saw some good signs from the Sunderland game, when they didn’t really create a chance all game and we had two cleared off the line. It’s important to know that when things aren’t going our way we can rely on our back 5 to give us clean sheets. After overcoming a half-hour long dismantling from Arsenal we more than matched them and were probably unlucky to come away with a point the game before that. So I have faith in Hughes to turn round our current poor form, let’s hope it starts today!

Team News (courtesy of BBC)

Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard is set to return after a month on the sidelines with a hamstring problem. Fernando Torres is back after being rested in midweek, while David Ngog is fit despite missing the draw with FC Utrecht because of a cut to his eye.

Fulham forward Moussa Dembele has returned to Belgium to seek further treatment on an ankle injury, but could return against West Ham on Boxing Day. Matthew Briggs remains out following calf surgery earlier this month.

Dembele’s still out which is disappointing. He’s started impressively here but two bad tackles have severely affected the impact he’s had. It’s definately not a case of us buying an injury prone player, those tackles on him would have taken out an ox, and whats more they both took place towards the end of 2-0 losses. He is exactly what we’re missing at the moment, somebody with a bit of swagger to create something from nothing. Briggs’ absence is unfortunate and the story of his Fulham career so far, but I don’t think it’ll effect us since Salcido is fit to play at left back.

What’s more significant is Gerrard’s return for Liverpool. He’s had a disappointing 12 months, no doubt about that, but no one can argue with his quality. Even more dangerous is the position he plays, behind the striker. From Roy’s recent comments about Lucas’ form and wanting to get Meireles on the ball more I don’t think he’ll change the central midfield partnership to accommodate Gerrard and instead will probably slot him in next to Torres. This worries me because where we have looked exceptionally weak defensively is the ease at which players can find space and run at our back four between the midfield and defence. Arsenal, Villa, West Brom wrecked us by doing this and because of the lack of pace in our midfield it takes longer than other teams for them to catch up and help snuff out the danger. I’d be tempted to make sure that Murphy stays solid infront of our back four as some sort of protection otherwise I can see both Gerrard and Maxi, who has been very impressive and his transfer value of £0 in January seems to have gone under the rader a bit, who love to operate in that space, run riot. Salcido and Hangeland don’t have a great turn of pace either so if Torres were to hang on the shoulder of the left hand of our defence those little balls in behind from Maxi and Gerrard could be very dangerous. We will need to be organised and play deep.

That offers a seperate problem. Meireles and Lucas are both very good short passers which is an underrated skill. We cannot then allow them space, since they’ve hit up an effective partnership they have dominated the midfield in home games against Chelsea and Blackburn among others. Problem is, as I said, we don’t want our midfield pushing too far up the pitch, and they will be pushing up further considering how little they both get forward compared to Gerrard say. So our strikers will have to work hard to close them down (maybe even man mark the deepest of the two) and we’d have to play narrow. Their wide men arent your typical touch-line hugging wingers, Kuyt and Maxi compare alot I think to the Davies and Dempsey duo of two seasons ago, and Konchesky is pretty poor on the ball so when you look at their threat from wide areas Johnson is the biggest provider for Liverpool. We’ll need to be wary of when Johnson gets a run at our defense though because his quality on the ball is really impressive and he can go past players with ease. On the other side of the pitch Liverpool players won’t be running to the byline so I’d rather see Baird in instead of Pantsil who can cope with the more intelligent drifter such as Maxi much better. I’m also looking for a big performance by Etuhu. He impressed me earlier this season but has since fallen off big time and isn’t playing well. Murphy on the other hand still belies his years and l’m beginning to think he’s the most underrated player at the club. Opta came up with another juicy stat which states Murphy’s in the top 3 passers in the league; it shows how much we still rely on him but against a hard working midfield he wont be able to do it on his own and must recieve support from Etuhu, the wide men and the deeper forward.

Liverpool aren’t invincable however. At the back Skrtel and Kyrgiakos are likely to play and they both have turning circles like tanks. They aren’t gifted on the ball either, although in recent matches Skrtel has noticably ran over the half way line with the ball a few times a game. The concentration levels of the full backs of Johnson and Konchesky aren’t (as us England and Fulham supporters know full well) their strong point, the late goal at Spurs and the second goal conceded against Blackpool where Konchesky and Johnson respectively made big errors demonstrates that well, so the most effective game plan would be to probe the ball in behind their back four. Liverpool play fairly deep, typical Hodgson really, which will make this not so effective as it was against Arsenal for example, but that’s ok because it gives us less pressure on the ball in the back and midfield and hopefully give us some sort of attacking incentive. Nevertheless I think that the acceleration and movement of Johnson will be important in this game to take advantage of the shortcomings of the Liverpool back four.

To get any result we will need to concentrate hard and our passing game must be on top notch otherwise I can’t see anything other than a Liverpool win, but maybe today is the day we finally get that good fortunate infront of goal that Hughes has talked about this week.

My team for Liverpool:

Baird – Hughes – Hangeland – Salcido
Gera – Murphy – Etuhu – Davies
A. Johnson