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Last four head-to-head:
3-1 Liverpool (a) 05.12.13
4-0 Liverpool (h) 12.22.12
0-1 Fulham (h) 05.01.12
0-1 Fulham (a) 12.05.11
Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-2 Arsenal (a); 4-1 West Brom (h); 2-2 Newcastle (a)
Fulham: 1-3 United (h); 3-4 Leicester (a); 0-2 Southampton (a)
Liverpool: Sturridge 8; Suarez 6; Gerrard 2; Moses 1
Fulham: Bent, Kasami, Sidwell 2; Berbatov, Kacaniklic, Ruiz, Senderos 1
Referee: Mike "Beachball" Jones
Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Sakho Cissokho
Gerrard Lucas Henderson
So, now that Coutinho's fit enough to start, how will Liverpool line up?
The goal seems simple: get the best out of Liverpool's best players. That's why the 3-5-2 made sense, even if Liverpool's midfield often looked less stable than a towering house of cards. Whatever formation is chosen, Suarez and Sturridge seemingly have to stay partnered up top. Which means that there are two probable options. Either Coutinho slots in where Moses played when Liverpool were more a 3-4-1-2 than 3-1-4-2, or one of the three center-backs makes way for a 4-3-1-2/4-4-2 diamond.
At the least, it'll be nice to see Liverpool with one, maybe even two of its first-choice fullbacks. Johnson is available after missing last week with an infection, while Enrique is back in training and may be available after missing the last three league matches with a knee injury. It's no exaggeration to suggest that Liverpool's first-choice fullbacks are often essential to Liverpool playing well. Last week's match at Arsenal, despite the strength of the opposition, demonstrated that fairly well. Since Rodgers took over, Liverpool have averaged 1.87 points per match when Enrique starts and 1.76 points per match when Johnson starts. When Johnson doesn't start, it's 1.29 points per match; when Enrique doesn't start, it's 1.35 points per match.
Despite all the clamor earlier in the week, it appears Gerrard will also start despite picking up a hip knock against Arsenal. Which means that Liverpool's midfield – much to the chagrin of many – will most likely remain unchanged. There are obviously valid arguments for leaving out one of Gerrard or Lucas. Would I like to see Gerrard rested for some combination of Henderson-Allen-Lucas? Sure. But I doubt it'll happen, and, to be fair, the system's worked fairly well against sides that Liverpool's expected to beat: Sunderland, Palace, West Brom. Fulham should fall into the same category.
And for all the 3-5-2's faults, the system has gotten the best out of Suarez and Sturridge, last week's loss at Arsenal exempted. That's no small matter. If Rodgers wants to retain that system, there's seemingly an easy way to do so, especially if Enrique's still absent. Henderson on the right, Johnson on the left, Lucas and Gerrard as central midfielders, and Coutinho in the hole. The Brazilian should be much better after a week of training than he was against Arsenal: incisive and dangerous, but often over-hitting the crucial pass due to a lack of sharpness.
For the most part, Fulham have been dire away from home this season. Yes, they've won two of five matches, handily beating last-place Palace and squeaking past Sunderland and yes, their three losses came against Newcastle, Chelsea, and Southampton, none of which are easy fixtures. But aside from the 4-1 win at Palace, they've struggled to create chances – good chances, bad chances, any chances – on the road, held scoreless in the three away losses and failing to create a single chance in the most recent at Southampton. They've created the fewest chances of any side in the league so far this season.
Sascha Reither, a very good right back, is suspended for stamping on Januzaj in Fulham's last match, while Hangeland, Rodallega, and Briggs will miss out through injury. Their expected XI is most likely Stekelenberg; Hughes, Senderos, Amorebieta, Richardson; Sidwell, Parker; Dejagah, Ruiz, Kasami; Berbatov.
Fulham could start with both Bent and Berbatov up front, shifting Ruiz to the flank with one of Kasami/Dejagah/Kacaniklic on the other side, but I expect Jol will be more conservative away from Craven Cottage. As per usual, Liverpool will be most threatened by the opposition's counter-attacks, with the wingers and Ruiz capable of breaking quickly and carrying the ball at their feet, while Berbatov's perpetually capable of languidly conjuring rabbits from his hat.
But both Sidwell and Parker can be drawn out of position, typically charging around the middle third in search of the ball. You know, quintessential English midfielders. Both Senderos and Richardson are guilty of switching off and committing errors. Berbatov and Bent go missing; Dejagah, Kacaniklic, Taarabt, and Kasami are only inconsistently brilliant. Fulham frustratingly foiled Dalglish's 2011-12 side, but Rodgers' Liverpool outgunned them in both meetings last season thanks to Suarez in the first meeting and Sturridge in the second.
This is a match that Liverpool should win, no matter the formation, no matter the personnel. Liverpool have earned their deserved reputation as flat-track bullies over the last year or so. And coming off a loss to Arsenal and with trips to Everton, Tottenham, City, and Chelsea in the next six weeks (after yet another international break), it's a match that Liverpool very much need to win.
No pressure, then.