By Séamus Leonard
How do you follow up a performance that captain Steven Gerrard described has one of the “top three” since he started his illustrious Liverpool senior career way back in November 1998? The Reds’ scintillating 5-1 demolition of Arsenal at the weekend has certainly made everyone sit up and take notice, but they’ll be back lounging in their seats soon enough unless Gerrard & Co do the needful against basement side Fulham on Wednesday night.
The game will go ahead, despite fears that Fulham would look to have the game postponed due a public transport strike in London. It may well have suited the Cottagers for the game to be moved to a later date in light of their energy-sapping heroics in eking out a 2-2 draw against Manchester United at Old Trafford on Sunday. But the threatened strike has been called off, and so Rene Meulensteen’s men face their second daunting challenge in the space of four days.
In a sport that is often drowning in hyperbole, Liverpool’s performance against the Gunners at Anfield on Saturday deserved every column inch of praise it received. Arsenal may well have been below par, but few Premier League teams, if any, could have dealt with the onslaught Liverpool produced. Four goals in the opening 20 minutes would normally tell its own story, but the scoreline was not even a fair reflection of Liverpool’s dominance. The Reds could have been five or six up if Daniel Sturridge had not dinked an effort wide and/or Luis Suarez’s thunderous volley not cannoned back off the upright and the rebound steered wide by the boot of Kolo Toure.
But marvelous as it was, Liverpool cannot afford to rest on its laurels. The Merseysiders have enjoyed several noteworthy results already this season, but faltering to the lesser teams means that although many observers believe a title challenge might be in the offing, Liverpool is still far from certain of clinching one of the coveted Champions League spots. It is worth noting, indeed, that Tottenham – a club that has changed manager mid-season and is still in the process of bedding in a host of summer signings – lies just three points behind in the race for the top four.
Liverpool has been in this situation in the very recent past. A 4-0 Merseyside derby victory over Everton had people queuing up to throw superlatives at Brendan Rodgers’ charges. Just a few days after the Toffees had been put to the sword, however, Liverpool was conceding an equalizer to West Brom at The Hawthorns and dropping two valuable points.
Away form has been one of Liverpool’s main problems this season, with Rodgers unable to coax a consistency of performance out of his men on the road. During his pre-match press conference on Monday, Rodgers repeated his mantra that as long as his players concentrate on their performance, the results will look after themselves. While there is certainly a lot of wisdom in that approach, the Northern Irishman may need to be more pragmatic if Liverpool is to succeed this season. It is asking too much of Liverpool’s squad, which is about as young as it is thin, to be at its best all the time. But in the opening three games of the season (1-0 wins over Stoke City, Aston Villa and Manchester United) it showed that it has the wherewithal to generate a lead and protect it. Rodgers’ side has posted impressive goal tallies on numerous occasions during this campaign, but it is the ability to grind out results when the side is not firing on all cylinders that will ultimately determine how successful this season can be.
One of the obvious issues during the West Brom game was fatigue. Even Suarez, that irrepressible bundle of Uruguayan energy, appeared lethargic against the Baggies. Rodgers has started the same 11 players in three consecutive games now, and there will be the huge temptation to go with the same combination that dismantled both Everton and Arsenal. But those same players came up short in the Midlands, so it would be prudent for Rodgers to make at least a couple of changes. The defense is unlikely to be altered, with center backs Daniel Agger and Mamadou Sakho yet to recover sufficiently from injury to be considered for selection.
Midfielder Joe Allen replaced Sturridge with 25 minutes remaining on Saturday, and that might be a change Rodgers sticks with. Allen could certainly do with the game time, and Sturridge has played a lot of football recently. The England international is prone to sustaining injuries, and so he needs to be used more sparingly than the seemingly indestructible Suarez.
Philippe Coutinho was exceptional in the Arsenal game, with his slide rule pass for Sturridge’s goal one of many highlights. But the diminutive Brazilian’s defensive work was arguably even more impressive, and the improvement in that area of his game is a credit to both him and the coaching staff. Again, however, he has struggled to put good performances back to back, and it might be worth throwing the fresh legs of either Victor Moses or Jordan Ibe into the mix.
On the topic of fresh legs, Fulham may have to make changes to compensate for the draining effects of that remarkable draw with Man United. Meulensteen opted for a 4-6-0 formation at Old Trafford. He is unlikely to be a whole lot more adventurous against a Liverpool side that meted out a 4-0 defeat in the reverse fixture back in November. However, it would be unusual if the Cottagers were to operate without at least one out-and-out attacker on their own turf. The hosts will, of course, be buoyed by the unexpected point they gained against the Red Devils. However, it would be tempting fate to think that they could repeat the same defensive heroics. United proved to be something of a one-trick pony, sending in 81 crosses in a display described as “Conference” football by Fulham defender Dan Burn.
On paper, there would appear to only one winner of this game. But despite being bottom of the table, Fulham’s transfer window dealings have made it a tougher proposition. The loan signings of Lewis Holtby (from Tottenham) and William Kvist (from VfB Stuttgart) look shrewd moves even at this early stage. The Londoners shipped out the extremely talented, but criminally lazy, Dimitar Berbatov and replaced him with Greek attacker Kostas Mitroglou. Luckily for Liverpool, the former Olympiakos man is still sidelined with a knee injury and will have to wait to make his Fulham debut.
Liverpool has made a habit of brushing aside lesser outfits at Anfield this season. While another comfortable victory would be nice, a win of any kind would do at this point.
If you are in the greater Boston area, you will be able to watch the match at The Phoenix Landing with LFC Boston. If not, you can watch it on NBC Sports Live Extra, with coverage starting at 1500 EST.
Fulham v Liverpool
When: Wednesday, February 12, 1500 EST/2000 GMT
Where: Craven Cottage, London
Previous Premier League match: Liverpool 5-1 Arsenal, Manchester United 2-2 Fulham
League Position 2013-14: Fulham 20th (20 points), Liverpool 4th (50 points)
Projected Fulham Starting 11
DEF: Reither, Burn, Heitinga, Riise
MID: Kvist, Parker, Sidwell, Holtby, Kaciniklic
Subs from: Stockdale, Richardson, Christensen, Zverotic, Hangeland, Amorebieta, Karagounis, Kasami, Duff, Plumain, Tankovic, Rodallega, Dempsey
Projected Liverpool Starting 11
DEF: Flanagan, Skrtel, Toure, Cissokho
MID: Gerrard, Henderson, Allen
FW: Sterling, Suarez, Moses
Subs from: Jones, Kelly, Sama, Smith, Luis Alberto, Ibe, Coutinho, Aspas, Sturridge
Follow Séamus Leonard on Twitter @seamusleonard