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Feb 11, 2014

The growing expectations for Liverpool should be welcomed

You can't blame them for trying, I suppose. I doubt that anyone who witnessed Liverpool's 5-1 destruction of league leaders Arsenal on Saturday would fancy playing against them anytime soon, but unfortunately for Fulham the cancellation of the London Tube strike means they'll just have to roll up their sleeves and get on with it Wednesday night.

I'd imagine that the prospect of having the night off to rest their weary legs after that energy-sapping rearguard action at Old Trafford on Sunday would have greatly appealed to Fulham's players, but now they'll have to saddle up once again and go toe to toe with a Liverpool forward line that will present a vastly different type of challenge to that which the Cottagers faced against Manchester United on Sunday. Liverpool won't be breaking the Premier League record for the amount of crosses aimlessly thrown into the penalty area, that's for sure.

The dilemma facing Fulham boss Rene Muelensteen is whether to adopt the same tactics on home turf that worked effectively -- to a point -- at Old Trafford. While Muelensteen was keen to pat himself on the back and boast of how he knew what to expect from United, let's not forget that they did actually concede two goals and needed a stoppage time equaliser from substitute Darren Bent to avoid defeat. For all the praising of Fulham and criticism of United's one-dimensional approach play, it's not like they went there and kept a clean sheet. The question is, will Fulham be more adventurous against Liverpool? They are the home side so you would certainly expect them to be more positive than they were at Old Trafford, but given how devastating Liverpool have looked on the counterattack in games against Everton and Arsenal recently, I wouldn't expect Meulensteen to be throwing caution to the wind, irrespective of how desperately his side need the points.

Fulham have traditionally been a team that plays attractive football and can be a real handful at home. Somewhere down the line they lost their way, however, and this season in particular they have looked a real pushover at times. They have certainly not been equal to the sum of their parts, that's for sure, as individually there has been a lot of talent at Craven Cottage over the last couple of years. It simply wasn't working though, and Meulensteen has shipped out the "fancy dance" in favour of a more dogged approach.

The Premier League is unquestionably a poorer place without the mercurial talent of Dimitar Berbatov, but in their current predicament Fulham are probably better off without the Bulgarian. Glamour has made way for graft at the Cottage as they try to claw their way to Premier League safety. Bryan Ruiz has also gone, as has Adel Taarabt ,who somehow ended up at AC Milan. He must have the best agent on the planet.

From a Liverpool perspective, Fulham's shift in approach makes them a less-than-ideal opponent. The Reds have been in rampant form of late but are still prone to the odd lapse, usually against sides that get men behind the ball and make things difficult. Aston Villa came to Anfield and sat back, drawing Liverpool to them before striking with lightning-quick counterattacks. West Brom also sat back and made things difficult, but they didn't have the pace or skill on the break that Villa possess and needed a Liverpool error to avoid defeat.

Defensively, at least, the Baggies coped relatively well with the attacking threat posed by Liverpool, and that may be the blueprint used by Meulensteen as he tries to mastermind another upset. I say "another," but I'm not sure if Manchester United failing to win actually qualifies as an upset these days. Nevertheless, Fulham will look to West Brom for inspiration, particularly as the likelihood is that Liverpool will be fielding the same starting lineup that took the field at the Hawthorns.

For their part, Liverpool will be hoping for a repeat of what happened in this fixture at the back end of last season when Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge (who scored a hat trick) ran riot. The 3-1 score line did not reflect the huge gulf in class between the two sides on the day, though; Liverpool were breathtaking and could easily have notched double figures. That was a vastly different Fulham side to the one the Merseysiders will face on Wednesday night, but it's a different Liverpool, too. For one thing, Luis Suarez will not be watching from home this time whilst serving a lengthy suspension. The Uruguayan has experienced contrasting fortunes at Craven Cottage. His first trip there saw him score a fine goal whilst excelling in a 5-2 rout for the Reds. His good pal Maxi Rodriguez went home with the match ball that night following a well-taken hat trick, but Suarez was fantastic and Fulham simply couldn't handle him.

The following year was a different story, Liverpool actually played quite well but fell foul of several contentious decisions from the officials -- a wrongly disallowed goal and a controversial red card for Jay Spearing being the most significant -- and a frustrated Suarez ended up with a one-game suspension for a gesture made to the home fans as he left the field at full time following a 1-0 reversal.

Suarez will be looking to get back on the goal trail after going two games without scoring. That's a drought of epic proportions for the Reds' No.7 based on this season's incredible form, as the woodwork and inspired goalkeeping have conspired to keep him off the scoresheet in Liverpool's last two fixtures. Sturridge on the other hand hasn't been able to stop scoring, finding the net in each of the six games he's featured in since returning from injury. If the right one don't get you then the left one will...

In the wake of that stunning victory over Arsenal, Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers has spent the last few days playing down talk of a title challenge, but for the club's supporters a victory at Craven Cottage will perhaps bring back memories of the Reds' last run at the Premier League title when Yossi Benayoun's dramatic stoppage time winner in April 2009 sent Rafa Benitez's side to the top of the table. That goal and subsequent victory had the traveling support belting out "And now you're gonna believe us, WE'RE GONNA WIN THE LEAGUE" with a belief not felt since the Reds' last title triumph almost 20 years earlier.

As we know, there was to be no happy ending for Kopites that season, Manchester United kept churning out win after win and eventually pipped Liverpool to the title by a four point margin, but for that afternoon at Craven Cottage at least, Liverpool's players, supporters and staff believed they could be champions.

A victory at Fulham on Wednesday night won't have the same effect of course -- we're not in April and three points won't send Liverpool to the Premier League's summit -- but it will certainly add to the growing sense of optimism that rather than being the ultimate goal, fourth place may actually be the very least that the Reds can achieve this season.

If that is to be the case then you could say that this is a game in which Liverpool simply cannot afford to slip up, but then you would have to say that about every game between now and May. That's the pressure of life at the top end of the table, and it feels good to be experiencing it again.