Fulham look to bounce back from their European setback in Twente last week tonight by continuing their gradual improvement in their league form, but it will be easier said than done against an in-form Liverpool side. Considering the way Kenny Dalglish’s side swept us aside with some blistering football at the end of last season, there’s a dreadful sense of foreboding hanging over this fixture. The Reds come to Craven Cottage looking for a second successive win in London – after they added to Chelsea’s miserable start last week – and hoping to match a club record of seven straight away wins.
All of the key players from last year’s mauling will be available to Dalglish. Luis Suarez, busy, impudent and deadly in front of goal, will be full of running from the first whistle. Dirk Kuyt, often underrated but an integral part of Liverpool’s side for many seasons, should be scampering down the wing and Maxi Rodriguez, whose hat-trick killed us off, is in line for a start after scoring twice at Stamford Bridge in the space of nine days. The big miss for Liverpool will be Lucas Leiva, ruled out for potentially six months with a knee injury, but such is the strength of Dalglish’s squad he has a selection dilemma over who comes in. The recovering Steven Gerrard isn’t expected to feature but Dalglish has a choice between Charlie Adam, Jordan Henderson (who for me is more of a central midfielder than a wide player) and Jay Spearing, who was so impressive in the heart of midfield at the Cottage last season.
Taking on a seemingly rampant Liverpool is a daunting task, especially when you consider that Fulham’s home form has not been up to its usual exemplary standards this season. Though it might have been majestic, the Whites have managed just one win at Craven Cottage – the 6-0 thumping of QPR – even if the performances might have merited more than that meagre return. Martin Jol’s side dominated Everton and Tottenham at times but were on the wrong end of painful 3-1 reverses that hinted at a worrying brittleness in both boxes. Encouraging performances at Sunderland and Arsenal have hinted at better things to come and the Fulham fans will certainly hope that Thursday’s stuttering display at Twente was merely a minor blip.
One of the stand-out performers in recent weeks has been the returning Dickson Etuhu. The Nigerian has his critics – and I’ve been one of them in the past – but he’s been outstanding as the defensive buffer between the midfield and the back four since replacing the injured Steve Sidwell. At his imposing best, Etuhu’s physicality and energy makes him a formidable barrier for the opposition to get past. He’s got a point to prove, dismayed by Jol’s preference for Sidwell in central midfield, and Fulham will need both him and former Liverpool midfielder Danny Murphy, who played a peach of a ball for our goal at Arsenal last weekend, to be on the top of their game tonight.
There are minor fitness doubts over Clint Dempsey, who missed the European trip with a thigh injury, and Moussa Dembele, who was substituted before the end of that disappointing defeat, but Bryan Ruiz is available again after being cup-tied against his old club. You get the feeling that Fulham will need to be quick out of the blocks tonight and that our best bet is to take the game to Liverpool. Both Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique like to raid forward from full-back, so penning them back with some adventurous wing-play will be vital.
Some Fulham fans, concerned at a perceived drop off in form of our front man, have suggested dropping Bobby Zamora tonight but that would be madness in my book. Zamora’s movement and hold-up play is so crucial to the way Fulham are set-up these days that without him we look like genuine relegation fodder. He’s not been firing on all cylinders this season, but that’s as much due to the change in style as it is poor form. Without a partner up top or an advanced midfielder to offer support (a la Zoltan Gera), Zamora’s been pretty isolated for much of the season. Given that we no longer play with the wide midfielders likely to get to the byline, he’s not had the service from which he can thrive. Even considering all that, he remains our best option ahead of a tough assignment tonight.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Kelly, J.A. Riise, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Dempsey, Dembele; Zamora, Johnson. Subs: Etheridge, Briggs, Senderos, Gecov, Kasami, Frei, Sa.