Vital Preview: Fulham vs. Liverpool
Barclays Premier League
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers has spent much of the past fortnight fielding questions from journalists about his targets for the season.
After initially playing down talk of a possible title tilt, Saturday's 5-1 annihilation of Arsenal left Rodgers suggesting a sustained challenge might not be beyond his charges after all.
As is often the case with the Merseysiders, matches against the league's lesser lights could prove a crucial factor in whether or not those aspirations are realised.
In addition to an equally impressive 4-0 Merseyside Derby win, the past four games have seen Liverpool drop points against both Aston Villa and, most recently, West Bromwich Albion.
If the six point deficit to leaders Chelsea is to be overcome then Rodgers' men will not want to do likewise against rock bottom Fulham on Wednesday night.
The Cottagers, now coached chiefly by Dutchman Rene Meulensteen, will be buoyed by claiming a point at Old Trafford in their previous fixture but they have only three league wins since the beginning of November.
Safety is currently four points away and the Londoners also have to factor in the top flight's worse goal difference of -31.
Rogers: "I won't talk about horses and all sorts of things (like Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho after beating Manchester City last week), we'll just talk about football and making people better.
"I came here to challenge for titles, so there is no limit on our ambitions. I am very much full of optimism for this football club and the development of the team.
"But I also have to be realistic as well and I think it's something that might be too much for us this season."
Meulensteen: "They might be a dark horse and if other big teams stumble where you don`t expect them to and they can carry the momentum into April, you never know.
"But they`ve had an excellent season. It`s a good thing the striker in the middle is not an O as it`d be SOS. It has to be all hands on deck for us.
"We have to defend in a good compact manner. The defensive performance from Sunday was a massive improvement."
Fulham Team News:
After a busy January transfer window, Fulham have a markedly different squad now to the one which Liverpool beat 4-0 at Anfield in November. Out have gone the likes of Dimitar Berbatov, Bryan Ruiz, Philippe Senderos and Aaron Hughes while new owner Shahid Khan spent in excess of £12million on Greek striker Konstantinos Mitroglou and also secured deals for Johnny Heitinga, William Kvist, Lewis Holtby, Clint Dempsey, Ryan Tunnicliffe and Larnell Cole. All could feature on Wednesday night, although Mitroglou is struggling with a knee injury at present. Meulensteen is likely to take a slightly more positive approach in front of his own fans, than he did in the draw with Manchester United on Sunday, which could mean a start for late goalscorer Darren Bent. Club captain Brede Hangeland may also return to the starting eleven but Venezuelan defender Fernando Amorebieta is out.
Stekelenburg, Riether, Heitinga, Hangeland, Riise, Duff, Kvist, Sidwell, Richardson, Holtby, Bent.
Player to watch: Steve Sidwell
When you're in a relegation battle it is important to have players of the right type of character; which explains a number of the departures last month. Sidwell is a hard-working, dependable and experienced midfielder who helps to encourage others around him. The 31-year-old also possesses decent quality on the ball and is his side's leading goalscorer this term with seven. It's easy to forget that Sidwell has spent the majority of his career in the top flight with spells at Reading, Chelsea and Aston Villa also on his CV.
Liverpool Team News:
Rodgers is faced with a slight quandary for this game after naming the same team for the previous three fixtures. The quick turnaround and a looming FA Cup tie at the weekend might see him consider making alterations. Out of the names on the club's lengthy injury list, Daniel Agger and Glen Johnson are back in full training but neither is likely to be risked. Therefore any changes will need to come from the same matchday squad as the encounter with Arsenal. Joe Allen, Martin Kelly and Victor Moses are the most likely to be included. Mamadou Sakho (hamstring), Lucas Leiva and Jose Enrique (both knee) all remain sidelined for the foreseeable future.
Mignolet, Flanagan, Skrtel, Toure, Cissokho, Gerrard, Henderson, Coutinho, Sterling, Suarez, Sturridge.
Player to watch: Raheem Sterling
If Fulham defend deep then the onus will be on Liverpool to find a way through or around their opponents. The pace and trickery of Sterling could therefore be crucial in the visitors creating chances. The England winger is in fine form currently and his double against Arsenal shows that he also carries a notable goal threat. Liverpool's failure to sign either Mohamed Salah or Yevhen Konoplyanka last month could prove pivotal in the continued progression of Sterling and help the winger book his place on the plane to Brazil this summer.
Match Facts & Stats
• Liverpool and Fulham have met 58 times in their respective histories and the Reds hold the upper hand overall with 36 wins to 10 and 13 draws. Liverpool have scored a total of 129 goals compared to a tally of 53 for the Cottagers.
• Fulham have the league's poorest home record accumulating just 10 points from 12 fixtures at Craven Cottage in 2013-14 (W3, D1, L8).
• Another stat which helps to explain the Londoners' plight is the 55 goals conceded; a league high.
• Liverpool's defence isn't the strongest either and they have kept just one clean sheet in their last 11 Premier League away games.
• Generally the Reds get off to a good start however, scoring the first goal in 19 of their 25 league games this season.
• Daniel Sturridge is a man in exceptional form, scoring in each of his last seven league and cup games. The England international fired a hat-trick in this fixture last season.
Phil Dowd is the official appointed to oversee this contest. The Staffordshire based whistle blower has taken charge of 23 games so far this season, showing 98 yellow cards and two red. The 51-year-old has officiated Liverpool on one previous occasion this campaign; the 3-3 draw with Everton in November. Friend has been a part of the Select Group of Referees who oversee Premier League fixtures since 2001.
The Reds will obviously start as overwhelming favourites against their relegation threatened opponents. Despite their spirited display against Manchester United, it will be some achievement for Fulham to avoid the drop. They've bought in some really good players, to be fair, but, as we saw last year with Queens Park Rangers, bedding so many in and getting them to have an immediate and prolonged impact is incredibly difficult. I'd love to see it happen though, as they are a great club. Any revival needs to wait one more game anyway while we press home our advantage in fourth and give those above us even more to think about. An early goal for the hosts could be crucial in the outcome but it is difficult to see us not scoring and, ultimately, not winning.
Vital Liverpool predicts a 0-2 win
Liverpool - FA Cup vs. Arsenal at The Emirates on Sunday 16th February 2014, kick off 4.00pm GMT.
Fulham - Premier League vs. West Bromwich Albion at The Hawthorns on Saturday 22nd February 2014, kick off 3.00pm GMT.
So that's what we think, how about you? Let us know your thoughts and predictions for the game below or vote in our poll to the right...
Click here to read former Red Mark Lawrenson's prediction
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