30 April 2012

Liverpool v Fulham 05.01.12

2:45pm ET, live in the US on espn2

Last four head-to-head:
0-1 Fulham (a) 12.05.11
5-2 Liverpool (a) 05.09.11
1-0 Liverpool (h) 01.26.11
0-0 (h) 04.11.10

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 Norwich (a); 0-1 West Brom (h); 2-1 Everton (n)
Fulham: 0-4 Everton (a); 2-1 Wigan (h); 1-1 Chelsea (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 11; Bellamy 6; Gerrard 5; Carroll, Maxi 4; Adam, Kuyt, Skrtel 2; Coates, Henderson, Johnson 1
Fulham: Dempsey 16; Pogrebnyak 6; Johnson 3; Duff, Murphy, Ruiz 2; Dembele, Diarra, Sa, Senderos, Sidwell 1

Referee: Lee Probert

Guess at a line-up:
Kelly Skrtel Coates Enrique
Henderson Spearing
Kuyt Shelvey Maxi

There will be changes. Which, as usual, leads to the question as to how many changes. My guess is "a lot."

There's a long list of players in line to be rested. Gerrard and Agger top that list. Suarez and Johnson aren't far behind. Enrique would be as well if Liverpool had another viable option at left-back; Robinson and Aurelio both seem remote possiblities. Bellamy and Carragher almost assuredly won't start after playing against Norwich, and Downing shouldn't after the performance he delivered. Which seemingly leaves us with the above options.

Even though Carroll missed Saturday's match because of an injury concern, I suspect he'll start tomorrow. I'll be surprised if he's in Saturday's XI, more because of Chelsea's formation and tactics (and Liverpool's "big game" tactics) rather than Carroll's failings. Tomorrow presents a chance to both rest Suarez and give Carroll an opportunity to prove he should play in the cup final.

Fulham will be difficult opponents no matter the line-up Liverpool deploy. Other than the 5-2 mauling during last season's run-in, thanks to Suarez and Maxi's brilliance, they're a team that's given Liverpool problems going back to Benitez's reign. Three points and one place behind Liverpool in the table, Jol's side is capable of excellence, awfulness, and mediocrity. Sometimes within the same match. It's a side that scored six against QPR, five against Newcastle, and five against Wolves – admittedly, all at Craven Cottage – held Chelsea to 1-1 draws both home and away, and were the first to take points off of Manchester City this season. But it's also the same side which were demolished 0-5 at United in December, 0-3 against Swansea a few weeks back, and 0-4 at Everton on Saturday. So, a side as inconsistent as Liverpool, but far more likely to both score and concede more.

And I doubt I need to remind of the reverse fixture, another eminently frustrating Liverpool performance which saw the away side "dominate" but ultimately lose after failing to score, having Spearing sent off (arguably unfairly), and conceding a cheap, late goal to Fulham's top scorer by some distance, Clint Dempsey, who shouldn't have been on the field after head-butting Bellamy earlier in the match.

Fulham's usual formation is 4-4-1-1. Most impressive, at least to me, is the side's versatility within that formation. Dempsey and Dembele – one of my favorite non-Liverpool players in the league – are the keys to that versatility. January signing Pogrebnyak, with six goals in nine appearances, is the usual spearhead, but Dempsey's played up front with Dembele in support in previous matches, often against stronger opposition. Dembele could also play in central midfield or on the flanks, as Dempsey has in previous appearances.

Still, the most likely formation is Pogrebnyak up front, Dempsey in the hole, Dembele and Murphy (or Diarra) in midfield, and Duff and Frei on the flanks. With right-back Stephen Kelly injured, Hughes-Senderos-Hangeland-Riise should be the back four, although Baird could also come in for Senderos, as he did at half-time against Everton. Yep, Fulham's likely XI contains two ex-Liverpool players. That usually ends well. Ruiz, Sidwell, and Grygera are Fulham's other casualties.

Admittedly, with the FA Cup final just over the horizon, my expectations are low for this match. That Liverpool are likely to make a number of chances is actually encouraging, giving players something tangible to play for, hoping to reap the rewards with a place on Saturday rather than having the usual starters going through the motions with all thoughts on Chelsea instead of Fulham.

That both Fulham (and West Brom) are just three points behind Liverpool, albeit with an inferior goal differential, should be further motivation. Points dropped here could propel Liverpool into the bottom half of the table if maximum points aren't taken in the final two matches. No matter the relative unimportance of league place thanks to the previous 35 matches, that remains a bridge too far, one best left uncrossed.

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