Preview: Fulham v Liverpool

Michael Regan

Fulham host Liverpool Wednesday night having just claimed a valuable point from a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford. For their part, high-flying Liverpool are still scoring against Arsenal having demolished the Gunners 5-1 at the weekend. Can the Cottagers put in a repeat performance of Sunday's heroics? Why Rene Meulensteen has a selection headache and bigger fish to fry.

After some question as to whether or not this match would be played at all due to a long-planned tube workers' strike, things now look set to proceed at Craven Cottage tomorrow night as high-flying Liverpool make the trip to west London. Last minute talks averted the strike and Fulham's controversial suggestion that the match should be canceled is now a moot point, much to the delight of myriad clubs neighboring Liverpool and Fulham at both the top and bottom of the Premier League table.

After Sunday's delicious and improbable 2-2 draw away to Manchester United, Rene Meulensteen must now start anew in the face of a significantly more difficult fixture with Liverpool, such was the one-off nature of the United draw. The same sort of team - compact, back line heavy, and counterattacking - could be deployed again by the Dutch gaffer, but Liverpool are a side capable of presenting the sort of dynamic, unpredictable attacks United failed to construct Sunday last.

Whereas the Red Devils seemed incapable of anything other than serving cross after cross into the teeth of the Fulham defense, Liverpool not only have the capability of exploiting space on the flanks, they also have the nous, pace, and technical ability to pass through even the most compact rear guard and the bruisers to capitalize off of set pieces. United's uncharacteristic, one-headed Moyesian monster pales this season in comparison to the prolific, attacking hydra Brendan Rodgers has nurtured on Merseyside.

Although Meulensteen was able to construct a side that won an invaluable point at Old Trafford, it was not the sort of side, either in personnel or tactics, that provides the Cottagers the kind of sustainable platform from which to ascend the Premier League table. Two false nines and a bunkered defensive shape will not be the order of the day when Fulham take on the likes of West Brom, Cardiff, and Norwich. Perhaps that's stating the obvious, but with so many new faces vital to the bid for survival playing in a one-off system or even yet to play at all, Fulham are running out of time to settle into the cohesive unit that will give them the best chance at beating the drop.

Moreover, with the Liverpool match coming so quickly on the heels of the United draw, one must assume players will be rotated out of the squad that took to the pitch at Old Trafford Sunday night. This is not a criticism of Meulensteen, but rather a suggestion that it's too early to call the United draw a turning point for the Cottagers. Against the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, et al Fulham supporters should expect radically match-specific sides designed to nick a point. The real test of whether or not Fulham have indeed turned the corner will be matches against their relegation rivals. Those sides, likely only similar to these most recent Fulham incarnations in the badge on their shirts, must settle quickly into player selections and tactics that have yet to show themselves this season.

Coming off their 5-1 demolition of Arsenal at the weekend, Liverpool will likely field essentially the same XI for their trip to Craven Cottage, although Jordan Henderson may miss out with a fractured wrist sustained in the Arsenal match. If he does, expect Joe Allen to deputize in his place. Of primary concern to Fulham is not necessarily where Brendan Rodgers chooses to deploy Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge - both hitmen have spent time playing wide for Liverpool this season - but on suffocating the play-making abilities of Philippe Coutinho.

Whereas Juan Mata hovered on the periphery of much of the Manchester United match and ceded much of the play-making responsibility to Michael Carrick and later Wayne Rooney, Philippe Coutinho is not so constrained under Brendan Rodgers and has the quality and imagination to create plans b, c, and d should plan a fail to bear fruit.

As for the Fulham side, I'd be lying to you if I said I couldn't do much more than speculate. After Sunday's result, I imagine Meulensteen will opt to field a similar side, but given the effort put in at Old Trafford by every single Fulham player, it's unlikely that the team deployed tomorrow night will not be without a number of changes. Scott Parker could rotate in for William Kvist or Steve Sidwell, the latter having put in a stellar but life-sapping shift on Sunday. Will Johnny Heitinga or Dan Burn make way for the well-rested Brede Hangeland? Or has the Norwegian officially become a victim of his underwhelming performances this campaign? And what of Kostas Mitroglou? We're told he picked up a knock in training before the United match, but rumblings persist that he arrived from Greece in something much less than full fitness and a 90 minute test against Liverpool seems unlikely. Perhaps a cameo in the Darren Bent role would be more suitable, hopefully to similar heroic effect.

Regardless the result tomorrow night, keep in mind that any points gained from the matches against Manchester United and Liverpool were always going to be a bonus. A needed, fulfilling, delicious bonus, but a bonus nonetheless. The real measure of survival is still yet to come.

COYW!

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