Club Focus – Fulham – Tough games just keep coming

After three games in six days last week, of which not one ended in defeat, Fulham’s players had a well-earned rest during round four of the Carling Cup. But, after a home Europa League tie with Roma and an unlikely draw at Manchester City, the Whites’ reward for an excellent week’s work is the visit of Liverpool. Although Fulham are far from unaccustomed with beating Saturday’s visitors at Craven Cottage – with three home wins in eight Premier League seasons – there is still no question that every player must be at his best to take even one point against a somewhat rejuvenated Reds side – that Fulham have a better record at the Cottage against Liverpool than any other of the recognised top four sides is largely irrelevant.

The midweek off has meant some first-choice players will return in time to face the Reds – such as Dickson Etuhu and Andy Johnson – but should they be allowed to walk straight back into the team? Unless Roy Hodgson opts for both defensive-minded players Chris Baird and Etuhu, thus replacing Jonathan Greening, it is safe to say the Nigerian will come in for his like-minded teammate. Such a move would be incredibly unfair on the versatile Northern Irishman, who has not put a foot wrong since being given the nod but, that said, Hodgson will no doubt want to put out what he believes to be his strongest possible side against the might of Liverpool – and especially Yossi Benayoun.

If ever there was a bogeyman for the Cottagers, the Israeli would surely be it. Since moving to the Premier League in the 2005/06 season, the skilful midfielder has netted four times in seven league appearances against the Whites – and got the late winner in this fixture last season. Compared to his Premier League average of just under a goal every four games (which is impressive enough), his record against Fulham of over a goal every two games is exceptional. Forget Fernando Torres, forget Steven Gerrard, Benayoun is the one for Fulham to watch. He is the main reason why, if Rafa Benitez lines him up in the middle, Etuhu is the best option in the heart of the Londoners’ midfield. The Nigerian is a commanding presence, and Benayoun can often go missing if he has taken a few hits early in a game – hits Baird is less likely to be capable of. With Liverpool’s central, five-man midfield, it would be short-sighted of Hodgson to overlook the physicality Etuhu brings to his side. Despite occasionally looking far from assured on the ball, the holding midfielder enjoys the dirty-work of breaking up the opposition flow, and rarely is such a trait more vital than against a mobile, passing midfield such as Liverpool’s.

Of course, matches aren’t won solely by not allowing your opponents to play. With Danny Murphy still out of contention to face his old club, eyes will once more be looking to the wingers to provide the chances to carve open the Reds defence. After bagging a goal each against City, Clint Dempsey and Damien Duff return to London and should be brimming with confidence, and Hodgson will no doubt be asking them to target the Liverpool full-backs’ recognised lack of defensive prowess. Duff appears keen to show the rest of the league that they missed a trick by not taking a gamble on him after Newcastle’s relegation, and Fulham are benefitting from doing exactly that.

Last season, despite Dempsey and one of Zoltan Gera or Simon Davies working tirelessly down the flanks, the Cottagers missed a player with that touch of class, who could take defenders on and keep them guessing. That player has been missing since the departure of Steed Malbranque, but in Duff, Hodgson seems to have found a new one. Not for many seasons have Fulham fans enjoyed seeing the fear in full-backs’ eyes as they try to second guess which way the wide-man will turn – and that will be exactly what they are hoping for when Duff closes in on Emiliano Insua (or Fabio Aurelio). What’s more, the wings are the most fiercely contested positions in the Fulham XI – with Gera and Davies both waiting to pounce, and Bjorn Helge Riise impressing in the Europa League. Competition which Davies himself is relishing: “Look at all the good teams and you will find competition in every position, it makes players work for their shirt.” And Duff certainly cannot be accused of not working for his shirt.

The tough games do indeed keep coming – and Liverpool will be hoping to get through this one unscathed. Fulham, however, will have other ideas.

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